Sunday, March 17, 2002

Lavin takes on pressure with a smile

UCLA coach tries not to look over shoulder

By Michael Perry,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        PITTSBURGH — UCLA coach Steve Lavin tries to stay perpetually upbeat.

        Sure, his team was ranked No.5 in the preseason and finished out of the Top 25. Among its goals was to win the Pac-10 Conference regular-season and tournament titles, neither of which it came close to. There have been disappointments along the way, such as losses to Ball State, Villanova, Arizona State and California in the first round of the league tourney.

        But for Lavin, the often embattled sixth-year coach, it has been his smoothest season yet. He has not had to suspend any players. There have not been rumors of his being fired, nor of the school looking for another coach behind his back.

        “It's all basketball,” Lavin said. “The only issues or problems we've had have been on the floor. As a coach, you enjoy the struggles and challenges that come with solving problems on the basketball floor. That's why you coach or teach and work with young people.”

        UCLA (20-11) plays the University of Cincinnati today in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

        The Bruins' roster may be loaded with as much talent as Lavin has had. One of his biggest challenges has been trying to find a way to distribute playing time and maximize the vast talents of his players.

        Here was his solution Friday night in an 80-58 victory over Mississippi: Lavin went to what he called “a hockey substitution pattern.”

        He used a veteran lineup and played a zone defense. Then he mass-substituted, putting in four young players with fifth-year senior Rico Hines, and that group applied more defensive pressure on the ball.

        “We tried it against Oregon on Senior Day, and they played well,” Lavin said. “I was going to do it against Cal and didn't and kicked myself after we lost.

        “These two units in practice have great battles and great competition. It finally dawned on us that maybe we ought to play the two groups together. ... Like musicians, if they practice and play together, they're going to make better music.”

        Lavin, 37, is heavily criticized in the Los Angeles area in newspapers, sports talk radio shows, Internet chat rooms and letters to the editor. Often it has to do with the program's inconsistency. For every big win, it seems, there is a disappointing loss.

        This season, UCLA split games with No.7 Arizona, No.18 USC and No.24 Stanford. The Bruins lost twice to No.11 Oregon and went 1-2 against California, which received the 28th-most votes in the final Associated Press poll.

        They beat then-No.1 Kansas and lost by one point at Villanova. They lost to Ball State in the second game of the season and beat No.8 Alabama a few weeks later.

        “You don't know which team is going to show up,” junior Jason Kapono said.

        Lavin tries to maintain a sense of humor and not take the attacks on his coaching personally. He refers to himself as part of the entertainment landscape and says whoever succeeds him will “be a pinata” just like he is.

        He accepts that this is part of coaching one of the most storied programs in the country. The scrutiny and high expectations go hand in hand with the school's tradition-rich environment, which allows some recruiting and competitive advantages.

        “Because of what John Wooden did (10 NCAA titles, an 88-game winning streak, etc.), no coach will ever be able to fill those shoes,” Lavin said. “Every coach that's followed ... we all come up short both on and off the court. Coach Wooden, he's looked at just like a Ghandi in UCLA terms, or a Martin Luther King or Abraham Lincoln or the Pope.

        “I see it as a positive because I've had the chance to learn from him. To be able to tell your kids or grandkids someday that you had the opportunity to learn from John Wooden, it's like hanging out with Vince Lombardi for 14 years if you're a football coach.”


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