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MARCH MADNESS / NCAA TOURNAMENT

More Latitude, Less Attitude

UCLA: Barnes no longer a malcontent, but a key contributor who has earned his playing time.

March 14, 2001|SAM FARMER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Matt Barnes appreciates the attention, don't get him wrong. He likes the way UCLA basketball fans chant his name, then sheepishly approach him after games with a pen in one hand, a game program in the other.

What drives Barnes crazy is the notion that he's an overnight wonder, a guy who finally found his game after wallowing through his first two seasons. To hear him tell it, his skills are as unchanged and indelible as the tattoos running up and down his long arms.

"It's not that I've made great strides and I'm a whole new person," he said. "I've had this talent ever since I've been here. I just waited my time and eventually it was my turn. But it's not like I'm some day-and-night player."

His statistics suggest otherwise. Barnes averaged 5.6 points, 2.6 rebounds, and 14.8 minutes last season. This season his averages are 11.9 points, 7.2 rebounds, 30.3 minutes.

In one season, he has gone from an oft-disgruntled role player--he would storm away from a scrimmage if he felt slighted--to a cast-iron fixture in the starting five. The Bruins, who open the NCAA tournament here Thursday against Hofstra, are looking for a significant contribution from the 6-foot-7 junior forward who is the point man on their full-court press and moves with the effortless grace of a much smaller player.

"On this team, Matt is clearly the player that has made the quantum leap in his growth and development as a person, as a student and as a player," Coach Steve Lavin said. "His confidence has snowballed."

Last season, Barnes simply felt snowed under and jerked around. There were times he played less than a minute before getting reeled back to the bench. He scored 17 points in 24 minutes against Arizona State, then played 11 minutes the following game. He gave serious thought to walking away.

"It was hard, hearing from everyone else that I should be playing," he said. "Everyone was saying it, even some of the other coaches, and definitely my friends and family.

"It was torture. I love basketball with all my heart, and I really thought about quitting. I just couldn't handle it. That was definitely a hard experience. I think it made me a lot stronger, a lot wiser. I really feel like I can stand up and face any obstacle."

Lavin defends his decision not to play Barnes more last season, pointing out the Bruins had a logjam of talented low-post players and swingmen, among them now-departed JaRon Rush and Jerome Moiso.

That was little consolation to Barnes, whose grades nose-dived with his attitude. He was put on academic probation for part of last season and his future at the school looked bleak. His backward logic: If I don't have basketball, why study?

Around his teammates, Barnes did little to mask his unhappiness. He moped and openly talked of transferring.

Barnes said that, more than once, assistant coach Michael Holton had to talk him out of leaving school. Holton went through a similar rough period during his UCLA career, when he made the awkward transition from high school star to college role player.

Barnes stuck around, dedicated himself to being as prepared as possible when Rush and Moiso moved on, and worked on controlling his temper. It still flares from time to time. Last summer, he and guard Rico Hines tussled in a pickup game and Hines wound up conking him with a metal stool.

The confrontational side of Barnes is nothing new. But the confident side is. Simple as it sounds, he thinks his about-face is simply a result of increased playing time and the belief of coaches that he can get the job done. Sometimes, that's all it takes. His grades have improved--"I'm getting Bs and Cs"--and he is increasingly approachable and relaxed.

All the while, he has blossomed as a player. He made honorable mention All-Pacific 10, and clamps down on point guards with all the subtlety of a bear trap.

Rebounding was his strong suit early in the season, then came his defense. Two weeks ago, he made some beautiful passes and had seven assists in a victory over California. Two days later, he scored 32 in a loss to Stanford.

About the only thing Barnes hasn't shown--and something he will need to cultivate to realize his dream of playing in the NBA--is a consistent outside shot. He says he has one, and that he expects to take more outside shots next season, when Watson will be gone and Jason Kapono probably will be too.

"I feel I've put my time in for the program," Barnes said. "I've been all about helping the program. I feel that next year they'll help me out a little bit and let me shoot the three. I want to show everyone I can shoot it."

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