The Bruins Are Not in Ruins
Don't write off the 1995 NCAA champs just yet
Shameful firing at USC
Dayton bids a sad farewell to center Chris Daniels
With selection Sunday for the NCAA tournament less than a month away, almost every college basketball expert alive is more than willing to make his picks for the Final Four. Massachusetts, Kentucky, Kansas, Connecticut and Cincinnati are the teams most frequently mentioned. Villanova, Georgetown and Wake Forest have their backers too. The one name that almost never seems to come up is the defending national champion, UCLA.
You remember the Bruins. They're the guys that actually dropped completely out of the polls after a 2-3 start in December and haven't been in the Top 10 since. Well, UCLA coach Jim Harrick says people better beware of his Bruins come the ides of March and thereafter. "I don't want this team to be peaking now," he said last week just before UCLA headed north to play California and Stanford. "March is what it's all about, and I honestly believe when we get to March, we're going to be a force to be reckoned with. We're young, but we've got the potential to be pretty good before this is over."
The Bruins aren't bad right now. After scoring the last nine points of the game to beat Cal 73-65 last Thursday, UCLA ran into trouble at Stanford on Saturday and lost 67-66, but its record stood at an impressive 16-6. And the Bruins remained in first place in the Pac-10 race at 9-2, a game ahead of the Cardinal.
Harrick isn't just spewing coachspeak when he says UCLA is young. The Bruins start one junior (Charles O'Bannon), three sophomores (Toby Bailey, J.R. Henderson and Kris Johnson) and a freshman center (Jelani McCoy). Their lack of experience has, at times, led to woeful inconsistency, but Harrick, who is 57, hasn't let that get to him. He concedes that the national championship has changed him—for the better. No longer does he feel he has to prove himself in every game. No longer does he think he has to stay up all night looking at film. "I've even taken my wife to the movies a couple of times this season," he said. "Used to be, I'd never do that."
The Bruins' rough start in December can be attributed in part to his patience. He mixed and matched players as he tried to find his best lineup before Pac-10 play started. With Ed O'Bannon, Tyus Edney and George Zidek gone to the NBA, UCLA's team had to be completely reshaped. "I don't want to say losing was good for us, but it was inevitable," says Charles O'Bannon, who has gone from being Ed's little brother to this team's big-brother figure. "Everyone was being asked to do things he hadn't had to do before. We had to learn the hard way."
Charles is a case in point. He readily admits he wasn't comfortable trying to step into his brother's shoes as team leader. "Leadership isn't something that just happens," he says. "You have to earn it by the way you deal with tough times."
O'Bannon started earning it after the Bruins blew a 19-point first-half lead and lost at Kansas on Dec. 2. He called a players-only meeting to throw down the gauntlet to his younger teammates. "I just told them, playing well for a half didn't mean anything," he said. "If we were going to be any good, we had to be ready to look people in the eye down the stretch."
The Bruins responded by winning their next 10 games, even though they were hampered by injuries to point guard Cameron Dollar, who has a torn ligament in his right pinkie and a dislocated left pinkie. Bailey, who was so brilliant in last year's title game against Arkansas, has had to move to the point, where he has been adequate while playing out of position. Harrick usually gets Dollar in within the first 10 minutes and always has him in at the end of the game. "He just seems to make plays," says Harrick.