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Coaches Make It Personal

College basketball: Cancer fight part of agenda for Lavin and Williams in season opener at Garden.


NEW YORK — There are games that mean a lot in the standings. There are games that mean a lot in tournaments.

And there are games in which the meaning is emotionally profound.

UCLA Coach Steve Lavin and Kansas Coach Roy Williams will have personal motivation today, when their teams open the college basketball season in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at Madison Square Garden.

Each had a parent afflicted with cancer, and they welcome this opportunity to add to the $1 million the previous four tournaments raised to aid cancer research, education, advocacy and patient services.

If they can do it as part of a strong field that also includes St. John's and Kentucky, so much the better.

The Red Storm and 12th-ranked Wildcats will meet in tonight's second game; the winners will play for the championship Friday night, after the consolation game. The four rank among the top 11 in all-time victories, an attraction that's expected to help raise $500,000 for the American Cancer Society.

Lavin's father, Cap, a former University of San Francisco point guard who played in the old Garden, survived his battle with prostate cancer. Williams' mother, Lallage, did not. She died of multiple myeloma--bone marrow cancer--in 1992.

"This is something everyone is going to be touched by," said Williams, whose team is ranked seventh after finishing 24-10 last season.

"Someone said to me, 'Don't be overly dramatic about cancer,' but how can you not?"

Lavin, whose team was 21-12 last season and is ranked 17th, learned about courage from his father.

"His feat was a great model or example for me," Lavin said Wednesday. "It puts basketball in a little more proper perspective."

Neither Lavin nor Williams expects perfect performances.

Williams is scrambling to replace senior guard-forward Luke Axtell, who suffered a severe ankle sprain in practice Tuesday. He led the Jayhawks with 16 points a game in their two exhibition games but didn't travel to New York.

The Jayhawks will have a sizable frontline, with 7-foot-1 senior center Eric Chenowith, a former Villa Park High standout; 6-10 sophomore Drew Gooden; and 6-9 1/2 Nick Collison. That will challenge Bruin center Dan Gadzuric, one of three returning starters. The others are sophomore forward Jason Kapono, last season's top scorer at 16 points a game, and senior point guard Earl Watson.

"When you play Kansas, the first thing is controlling their initial offensive surge. They can get organized as fast as anybody in the country," Lavin said. "It's a matter of good transition defense and taking away from their initial offensive surge. . . .

"They have about as strong and effective a frontline as there is in the country. We can't expect one of our big guys to shut down their frontline. I think Dan is prepared, but it wouldn't be fair to ask Dan to shut down the entire Kansas frontline."

Another potential problem is the effectiveness of Watson, who sprained a tendon in his right pinkie Monday. The injury to his shooting hand will take at least four weeks to heal, but he has been wearing a plastic splint in practice and is expected to play.

"At this point, you compete obviously at the highest level you're capable of, but also understanding that if you win, you can't overreact and get too high, or if you lose you can't get too low," Lavin said. "As we tell the players, the season is more than a sprint.

"Just the four years I've been a head coach, we opened the season in the preseason NIT and lost to Tulsa and ended up winning the Pac-10 and winning 24 games. After the Tulsa loss, we were pretty much written off. My second year, we lost [to North Carolina] in the Great Alaska Shootout and beat Michigan in the NCAA tournament. Sometimes, this early in the season, you use these games to find out about your team. They're a measuring stick."

Williams agreed.

"I'm worried more about my team than about UCLA. I'd like to say 'concerned,' but 'worry' is the proper word," said Williams, who last summer turned down a chance to coach North Carolina. "At the same time, we will give our team some information on UCLA and on our next opponent. . . .

"I don't think we'll see what we hope we'll get later in the year, but it's the same for everybody. We'll know a lot more after these two games. A pretty good team left here a year ago 0-2 [Duke, which won its next 18 games]."



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