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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / 2000-2001 PREVIEW

Elementary, Watson

Bruins Need Senior Point Guard to Lead Way if They Are to Excel

November 16, 2000|BILL SHAIKIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Practice is over at Pauley Pavilion, and Earl Watson is talking.

He talks to coaches, teammates, reporters and students hanging around to watch. Sometimes he switches from one audience to another without skipping a beat.

He is the point guard.

He is the leader.

He talks on the court.

He talks off the court.

Bring up his leadership skills and Watson, the indispensable player among the Bruins, the one Coach Steve Lavin calls "an extension of the coaching staff," takes a firm position.

He is against the Burrito Supreme.

"A lot of young guys love to eat Taco Bell before practice," Watson says. "I'm just letting them know, what you eat is what you're going to give on the court.

"You've got to eat well, take in a lot of good food, a lot of vegetables and a lot of liquids. That gives you more energy on the court, gets you more focused, to make your body feel better.

"I'm getting on T.J. all the time about eating that Taco Bell."

As if on cue, T.J. Cummings, the Bruins' prize freshman, walks by.

"What's up?" Cummings says.

"Are you eating that Taco Bell?" Watson asks.

"No, no Taco Bell," Cummings says, a hint of nervousness behind his laugh. No burrito for Cummings tonight. No letting down Watson.

*

This is Earl Watson's senior season. This ought to be the season in which UCLA fans embrace Watson for who he is, rather than criticize him for who he is not--namely, Baron Davis.

Watson is a point guard, the third-best in the country according to Dick Vitale's preseason magazine. He is a leader.

And, so long as Watson stays sound and UCLA advances to the second round of the NCAA tournament, he will have started more games than any player in the Bruins' long and glorious history.

Then again, staying sound may be optional.

Three days before the Bruins' Sweet 16 NCAA tournament loss to Iowa State last March, Watson underwent laser eye surgery. He played, providing eight points and five assists.

Three days before the Bruins opened this season with consecutive games against national powers Kansas and Kentucky, Watson tore a tendon in the little finger of his right hand.

He played, wearing a splint, and had 41 points and 17 assists in the two games.

You can't lead from the training room.

"Leadership is winning games. That's what I'm taking pride in," Watson said. "Great leaders win big games and win as many games as possible. That's my goal."

Watson and Davis arrived together. The Bruins have played 99 games since then. Watson has started them all.

Davis, the prodigy and eventual NBA lottery pick, started two seasons at point guard. So Watson started two seasons at shooting, or No. 2, guard.

"I had no intent of coming in here and starting at the 2," Watson said. "I felt like I was going to push Baron to the max, and the best player would eventually start. When Coach Lavin put me at the 2 position, I was like, 'Wow, I have to adjust immediately to college basketball.' "

So Watson defined his own role.

"I felt like 2 guards didn't rebound, 2 guards didn't hustle, and I thought we needed a hard-nosed basketball ethic to make this team better," he said. "So that was me, diving on the ground, causing havoc in the backcourt, playing defense, getting steals, getting rebounds. I wasn't even worried about scoring points. I just adapted."

Lavin was thrilled. The Bruins needed a little less flash, a little more grit. Watson needed to know he wasn't only a caddie for Davis.

"We were just trying to convince him that we needed him to win," Lavin said. "He wasn't just a charity case. He wasn't just a throw-in with Baron Davis. He wasn't an insurance plan in case Baron went pro.

"He was someone who I thought could help us win on the front end of his career and on the back end, and that's what happened."

Davis did go pro, of course. Watson would play point guard, of course. In high school, he ranked among the top 10 recruits at that position--not as high as Davis, but nationally prominent nonetheless.

"I'm way more comfortable as a point guard," Watson said.

A funny thing happened to Watson on the way back to his comfort zone. He couldn't play point guard, critics charged. After he missed 12 of 15 shots and committed seven turnovers in a 59-43 loss to Gonzaga last December, critics wondered if the Bruins could advance in the NCAA tournament, or even get there, with Watson at point guard.

Lavin never wavered in his support. Watson had to learn a new offense and relearn an old position, and if that took time, so be it. The tournament did not start until March.

Said Lavin, "The point guard, like a quarterback in football, is the one who struggles the most in terms of his individual game to make the team better."

Seven turnovers? Never happened again last season. As the tournament approached, Watson hit his stride.

In the last weekend of February, with the Bruins at 4-8 in the Pac-10 and alumni calculating how much they could afford to contribute to help buy out Lavin's contract, Watson had a season-high 22 points and a career-high 10 rebounds in a 75-69 victory over Oregon.

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