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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / 2000-2001 PREVIEW

It May Be Kid Stuff at UCLA

Bruins: On a team built around Kapono, Watson and Gadzuric, success could hinge on freshman T.J. Cummings.

November 16, 2000|BILL SHAIKIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jason Kapono, the shooting star, was talking about his decision to return to UCLA after filing for the NBA draft. Earl Watson, the point guard and leader, was talking about the maturity of his teammates. Steve Lavin, the coach, was talking about the nine juniors and seniors who make up the heart of the roster.

The guy who could develop into the most important player on the team wasn't talking much.

This was last month, at the Bruins' preseason media day, and T.J. Cummings was just another freshman, standing alone beneath the championship banners at Pauley Pavilion. He was impressed, perhaps, but not awed, not as a son of former NBA star Terry Cummings.

"I feel like I'm ready to fit right in," Cummings said that day. "I'm ready to come in and work hard every day so I can show off my No. 43."

And so he has. When the Bruins opened their season with a 99-98 loss to Kansas last week, Cummings scored 24 points, the most for a UCLA freshman in his debut.

"He can play right away," Watson said. "And we have a lot of upperclassmen, so he doesn't have all the pressure on his shoulders."

For a UCLA team commonly defined as Kapono, Watson, center Dan Gadzuric and Co., Cummings could emerge as the most valuable member of the company.

He stands 6 feet 8, a power forward on a team with one center and one other power forward, Matt Barnes.

If Gadzuric gets into foul trouble, or if his sore knees flare up, Cummings can join Barnes along the front line. If Barnes cannot secure his spot in the lineup, Cummings can start alongside Gadzuric.

If the Bruins struggle to rebound, Cummings can help. He had 11 rebounds in the first two games, more than any teammate except Gadzuric.

If the Bruins struggle to score, Cummings can help. He shot 58% in the first two games, better than any teammate except shooting guard Ray Young.

If the Bruins struggle to get the ball inside on offense, Cummings can help. He made 10 free throws in 16 attempts in the first two games, both team highs.

This could be a lot to ask of a freshman, but Lavin won't be shy about asking. Even before Cummings lit up Kansas, Lavin watched him light up his teammates by scoring 28 points and grabbing 16 rebounds in a scrimmage.

"Certain players have an old soul," Lavin said. "It seems like they've been playing longer than they really have. He's got an old soul."

The first two games--the second a 97-92 overtime victory over Kentucky--highlighted the strengths and concerns of a year ago.

Can Kapono shoot? Better than ever, it appears, after an off-season of shooting from the NBA three-point line while considering the jump to the NBA. Kapono averaged 16 points a game last season and set a school record by making 82 three-pointers. He averaged 21.5 points in the first two games this season and, of his 12 field goals, 11 were from three-point range.

Can Watson play point guard? Yes, as well as he did at the end of last year, when he averaged 13.3 points, 8.1 assists and 2.8 turnovers in the eight-game winning streak that carried UCLA into the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. In the first two games this season, he averaged 20.5 points, 8.5 assists and 1.5 turnovers.

Can Gadzuric stay in the game? In 33 games last season, he played more than 25 minutes only nine times. He played 29 minutes in the first game this season and 26 in the second.

Can the Bruins play defense? Opponents shot 43% against UCLA last season, 49% in the first two games this season.

"We have to start with transition defense," Lavin said.

Can the Bruins shoot free throws? They shot 59% last season, worst in the Pacific 10 Conference. They shot 66% in their first two games this season, better but not good.

In the Pac-10 preseason poll, the Bruins were projected to finish fourth, which could jeopardize an NCAA tournament appearance. UCLA has not missed the NCAA tournament since 1988, when Cummings was 6.

Perhaps the child shall lead them into March Madness.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

UCLA Men / Bruins at a Glance

* Last season: 21-12 overall, 10-8 Pac-10.

* Finish: Tied for fourth in conference, lost in third round of NCAA tournament to Iowa State.

* Coach: Steve Lavin, fifth season, 91-38

* Who's new: Forward T.J. Cummings, forward Josiah Johnson, guard Ryan Walcott.

* Who's gone: Forward/center Jerome Moiso, forward JaRon Rush, forward Sean Farnham.

* Projected starters: Forwards Jason Kapono (16.0 points, 4.4 rebounds) and Matt Barnes (5.6, 2.6 rebounds), center Dan Gadzuric (9.7, 7.0 rebounds), guards Earl Watson (11.4, 5.9 assists) and Ray Young (5.8, 2.4 rebounds).

* Key to season: Without depth, the Bruins must pray for health. If Kapono goes down, the Bruins lose their most effective shooter. If Gadzuric goes down, the Bruins lose their only true center. If Watson goes down, the Bruins lose their point guard and most valuable player.

* Outlook: The Bruins can't catch Arizona, whose entire starting lineup is included in the preseason list of candidates for the Wooden Award, but UCLA should be able to compete with Stanford and USC for second place in the Pac-10. And if Cummings develops as expected, the Bruins could enter the NCAA tournament with a dangerous combination of scorers in Kapono and Cummings and a tournament-tested point guard in Watson.

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