Last month when fire trucks pulled up beside Pauley Pavilion, the scene couldn't have raised many eyebrows. When, after all, is that place not the scene of some crisis? As it turned out, this particular emergency was easily handled: While being retarred in preparation for the rains of El Ni�o, Pauley's roof had caught fire, filling the gym with smoke and forcing the basketball team to do its conditioning drills elsewhere. It's the Bruins' other preseason conflagrations that may not be so easily extinguished.
What was thought by many observers to be a potential Final Four team is missing three important players: In September top recruit Schea Cotton was denied admission because the NCAA disallowed his College Board score, and then senior forward Kris Johnson and 6'10" junior center Jelani McCoy were suspended indefinitely for breaking team rules (reportedly, they tested positive for marijuana). "With Jelani and Kris, we would have dominated people on the boards," says coach Steve Lavin, who now has three seniors, one junior and nine underclassmen—including two walk-ons—on his team. "We're suddenly a very small, young team that has to hustle."
Whether Johnson and McCoy will be reinstated will depend on their fulfilling certain criteria the athletic department won't divulge. "I'm proceeding on the premise that they won't be back," says Lavin.
Fortunately for the Bruins, the two senior stars who remain aren't likely to let them down. Toby Bailey and J.R. Henderson have seen it all in their careers: They won a national title as freshmen, lost to Princeton in the first round of the NCAA tournament as sophomores and then went through a humbling season of turmoil and redemption last year, starting with coach Jim Harrick's firing and ending with a loss to Minnesota in the Midwest Regional final. "I don't think these latest things will distract us," says Henderson. "With all the stuff we've been through, I don't think we can be distracted anymore."
Nevertheless, as long as McCoy and Johnson are in exile, UCLA's look and outlook will be significantly altered. The 6'8" Henderson will have to play out of position at center. "He is going to be critical to our success," says Lavin. "He'll probably touch the ball on 95 percent of our possessions."
After averaging 14.1 points per game last season, Bailey will also carry a heavier load. "This summer I worked harder than I ever have," he says. "For the first time since my freshman year, I was actually nervous before the first day of practice." Joining Bailey with the freshmen jitters are six freshmen, including Baron Davis, an L.A.-area point guard who was last year's Gatorade national player of the year, and Earl Watson, a versatile guard from Kansas City, Kans. "Baron is a natural leader," says Lavin. "He's like Joe Montana. He raises the level of everyone's play."
And if everyone, including Johnson and McCoy, does play, the Bruins are capable of repeating last year's triumph over adversity.