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Mourning After

With UCLA's big hole at center, things probably will get worse before they get better for Lavin and inexperienced Bruins.

November 28, 2002|Steve Henson | Times Staff Writer

Go ahead, UCLA fans. Boo your voices raw as you did after the 25-point exhibition loss two weeks ago.

Jeer the players as you did after the second exhibition loss one week ago.

Yell insults at the coach as you did after the overtime loss to San Diego on Tuesday.

It's a catharsis. Let it all out. But don't think it will change a thing.

Neither will a blowout by Duke on Saturday, or by Kansas in December, or by Arizona in January.

Better hunker down and become accustomed to mediocrity for the time being, as distasteful as that prospect might be.

Barring a dramatic off-the-court incident, Steve Lavin is going to remain as coach, at least through this season. College coaches don't get dumped mid-season, certainly not by first-year athletic directors.

And the Bruins aren't going to get dramatically better soon. Lavin is the first to admit the team has serious flaws that only time and experience can fix.

Among them:

* Freshman post players Michael Fey and Ryan Hollins are light years from filling the void left by last season's center, Dan Gadzuric.

Fey played three minutes against San Diego and made an ill-advised pass for a turnover the first time he touched the ball. Hollins played two minutes, just long enough to commit a turnover and a foul. Neither center had a point or a rebound.

"This is a big-time learning experience for me right now," Fey said.

Lavin faces a coaching quandary: The freshmen won't improve unless they play, yet they shouldn't play because they aren't ready.

With forward T.J. Cummings masquerading as a center, UCLA got pushed around by San Diego post players Jason Keep and Jason Blair, who combined for 47 points and 31 rebounds.

Silver lining: There are no dominant centers in the Pacific 10 Conference this season. Fey and Hollins could progress enough to become moderately effective by the time conference play begins, and power forwards Josiah Johnson, Andre Patterson and Marcedes Lewis could help.

Johnson, a sophomore, had a career-high nine points against San Diego. Patterson, a sophomore who is considered the team's best rebounder, will join the team in mid-December provided he makes sufficient academic progress this fall. Lewis, a freshman, is a tight end on the football team.

* Point guard Cedric Bozeman has yet to prove he can control the tempo and do what it takes to protect a lead.

The 6-foot-6 sophomore is tentative in key moments and missed an open follow shot from the paint that would have beaten San Diego in regulation. Also, it isn't clear whether he has improved his horrid 28.6% free-throw shooting of a year ago.

Silver lining: Bozeman equaled career highs with 13 points and eight assists against San Diego and had only one turnover.

* The players are out of shape. Despite the plodding pace of the San Diego game, Bozeman and senior forward Jason Kapono suffered leg cramps in the second half.

Kapono, the leading scorer the last three seasons, missed six of his last seven shots, including two potential game-winners at the end of regulation. Afterward, he said the weakness in his legs affected his shot.

Bozeman left the game to have a trainer rub out his calf late in the second half while his teammates frittered away a lead.

Silver lining: Kapono and Bozeman each played 40 or more minutes because reserve guard Ryan Walcott must sit out the first two games. Walcott's return should help keep everyone fresh.

"What's really clear is that we are a team in serious transition," Lavin said. "Until you play the games, you are not as fully aware of how dramatic a transition it is. We're behind where I want to be at this point. But I'm also encouraged about glimpses of potential. I think we will be a good team by the end of the season."

Teams have improved under Lavin before. The Bruins are 3-4 in openers since he became coach in 1996, yet advanced to the Sweet Sixteen in five of the previous six seasons.

"I don't think we've ever had a good start," he said. "It's about incrementally getting better, finding out about your team early so you can be good late. That's the approach, the blueprint you build your team with."

It's also an approach that doesn't win over fans that don't want to pay to watch a team that essentially treats nonconference games as exhibitions.

Attendance at Pauley Pavilion has declined in recent years. But the number of fans loudly expressing their displeasure is rising.

Those trends will continue as long as the team struggles. But this roster, under this coach, is not going to transform into a crisp, mistake-free unit overnight.

Whether it does by March might determine how much longer Bruin fans must endure this pattern.

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