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The Inside Track | Xs and O's

Underachieving UCLA Is in a Continuity Crisis

March 01, 2003|LONNIE WHITE

If UCLA fails to qualify for this month's Pacific 10 Conference tournament, the Bruins will have only themselves to blame.

They have too much talent to be one of the league's scrub teams.

But as they head into today's game at Oregon, Coach Steve Lavin's underachieving troops are tied for eighth and fighting for their Pac-10 lives. With only the top eight teams qualifying, the Bruins are on the verge of being left outside Staples Center when the tournament begins in two weeks, thanks to defeats in 11 of their 15 conference games and an embarrassing 7-17 overall record.

Of course, Lavin is most often blamed for the collapse of UCLA's once great program, and here are four reasons he'll probably be replaced:

1. UCLA lacks offensive flow: After struggling to take full advantage of center Dan Gadzuric last season with a traditional high-post attack, Lavin switched to a motion offense and the result has not been favorable.

Too many times, the Bruins have looked confused in their half-court offense. They seem to make perimeter passes just to move the ball around without any direct link to scoring, which has led to forced shots to beat the clock.

Even in UCLA's victory at Oregon State on Thursday, the Bruins had players running around, begging for the ball. This has led to selfish plays by not only young players such as Ryan Walcott but also seniors Jason Kapono and Ray Young.

The Bruins almost blew a sizable second-half lead against the Beavers because of poor execution. Having Kapono trying to create his own shot off the dribble does not work. Nor does it make sense to have Walcott, a mediocre perimeter shooter at best, take so many three-point shots. He's more effective attacking the basket.

2. UCLA does not have a feel for the game: It's almost as if players forgot how to make plays once they'd arrived at Westwood. UCLA's roster is loaded with athletes, but they've played tight this season. Even when something good has happened, Bruin celebrations have seemed muffled.

But then every once in a while, a Bruin makes a play that just has you shaking your head in amazement. Young did that a couple of times against Oregon State and so did freshman center Ryan Hollins. Dijon Thompson also makes plays and so does junior forward T.J. Cummings.

The problem, of course, is that the Bruins do not make enough of them. Lavin may know basketball, but he hasn't been able to get the best out of his players. It is a rare occurrence when more than two or three Bruins play well in the same game.

3. The Bruins do not move their feet on defense: Lavin switched to a match-up zone Thursday and UCLA held Oregon State to 36.4% shooting. But there were plenty of holes in the Bruins' defense that the cold-shooting Beavers failed to exploit.

With Hollins and his shot-blocking skills in the middle, UCLA has the rock around which to build a solid defense. At times, that has been the case, but not when the Bruins have needed a key stop.

Patient opponents have made the Bruins work on defense. The more teams worked the ball, the better chance they had of ending up with an open shot. Even Oregon State's big man, Philip Ricci, had his way in the post when the Beavers moved the ball around.

Another defensive issue for the Bruins is that they gamble too much. They have averaged only 5.3 steals a game.

4. There's no point guard: Because of the recent injury to Cedric Bozeman, Lavin turned to Young to run the team and the senior has not played badly. Because of Young's ability to score and willingness to drive aggressively to the basket, he has been able to open things up for teammates, especially Kapono.

UCLA has needed more dribble penetration all season. Young has been able to make opposing defenses react and that's a positive for an offense that has been bullied most of the season.

But Young is not a true point guard and he's not the answer to the Bruins' problem with turnovers. They've averaged 16.3 this season and had 18 against Oregon State. That's too many if you expect to win consistently in the Pac-10.

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