With No One to Help Him Wing It, Fledgling Lavin Has to Show He Can Soar

Late Friday, when this UCLA basketball season had finished its laborious flight over the cuckoo's nest, the arena floor filled with walk-ons and void of expectations, Steve Lavin did something different.

Something few had seen during this six-month emotional bender.

Something that, since last season's rookie joy ride, has been strangely dropped from his repertoire like those sweaty shirts.

Steve Lavin smiled.

It was in the final moments of the loss to Kentucky. One of those walk-ons had just made a steal, another had just grabbed a rebound, Lavin turned to a veteran, made an observation.

Soon both were grinning and laughing, the head coach was just a volunteer assistant again, one of the guys, a kid eating TV dinners and dreaming big dreams again.

Steve Lavin smiled, and one wondered.

Has he changed, or is it us?

Has the job turned a lovable gym rat into a pressure-bloated boss who is so overwhelmed by the UCLA experience that his teaching and game management suffer?

Has the former champion of the underdog become so enamored of star power that he turns the team over to his stars while trying to be one himself?

Or perhaps the problem is with us, increasingly skeptical members of the media and more antsy fans and alumni than UCLA will ever acknowledge.

Is it that Lavin simply has become like every other coach in America, and we can't handle it?

He haggles for a bigger contract like every other coach, yet we expect him to be different. He gladly accepts all the perks and publicity that go with being the UCLA coach, but we're like, hey, you're only 33, you don't deserve it.

However Lavin is perceived, this much is clear:

Last year, he was "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington."

This year he seemed, well, like everybody else who goes to Washington.

Is it him, or it is us?

The answer will be worth examining this summer as the entire UCLA basketball program is, for the first time, squarely in his young hands.

With the departure of the three seniors, the major players all will have been recruited by him.

The game plan that will accommodate these players will be completely devised and tailored by him.

There will be no more Charles O'Bannon or Toby Bailey around to fix a mistake, to inspire the weary, to run the show.

His team, his program, his burden.

We'll say it here first, knowing it will be repeated 1,456 times over the next 12 months:

Now we'll see if this guy can coach.

The records indicate there should be no question.

In two years he is 48-17. He is the first UCLA coach to take a team to consecutive Sweet 16 appearances since John Wooden. He is 5-2 in the tournament.

The large part of college basketball coaching is recruiting. Lavin and his staff have recruited about as well as you can recruit without the use of a Chevy Blazer.

They kept Baron Davis from leaving after Jim Harrick left. They brought in Earl Watson, who helped win the season's biggest game against Michigan. They may have uncovered a jewel in Fontana's Travis Reed.

Next season, the freshman class could be even better, among the best in the country, particularly if it includes the expected addition of Kansas City forward JaRon Rush.

He has the players, the numbers, the ferocious support of his superiors, four more years left on his contract, so what's the problem?

Well, lots of little things that, with Lavin solely in control, could become big things.

Davis, for one thing.

You know any basketball people? Ask them if they think Davis' marvelous but sometimes out-of-control skills have improved this season.

I'm still waiting for one to say yes.

None of UCLA's youngsters seemed to get better as the year progressed. Sure, Reed was outstanding at the end, but who knows if he wouldn't have played that well if given a chance throughout the season?

A good coach can make even a great player better, and Lavin still has that to prove.

He also must prove that, on a consistent basis, he can run an organized game plan for 40 minutes. Have more Michigan games, fewer Stanford games.

NBA scouts who watch UCLA say its practices are not always efficient, that some opportunities for teaching are lost.

On the afternoon before the Bruins played Miami in the first round of the NCAA tournament, J.R. Henderson said he had heard of only one Miami player, "that James guy."

There is a sense that Lavin needs to work the team with as much passion away from the spotlight as underneath it.

A veteran assistant coach would be invaluable in this area, but Lavin is admirably loyal to his young staff, and said he refuses to make any changes.

"Look at our record," he said late Friday. "If it ain't broke, why fix it?"

In some ways, Lavin is the perfect Los Angeles coach.

He believes in a star system. He seems to work harder in the big games. He is often saved by the dramatic.

However, judging from this town's most recent big-time sports accomplishments, those methods are proven losers.

Next season Lavin needs to play more people, period. Build a workmanlike rotation of more than six players, even if it means taking a loss in November in exchange for a possible win in March.

And even if it means benching a star who threatens to transfer.

Never again should UCLA step on a court with Kentucky and look like Radford. It is Lavin's job to make sure of that, no matter much some prep All-American complains.

Lavin might do well to study the atypical Los Angeles coach, Bruin football counterpart Bob Toledo.

Toledo struggled early last season, was criticized, and responded by simply working harder. The players sensed his humility and work ethic, and modeled it.

By the end of the season, the Bruins had a Heisman Trophy candidate and first-round NFL running back.

Toledo became an NFL head coaching candidate without seemingly ever leaving the film room.

When asked about his faults, Lavin wonders, as many do, how can he be criticized while winning 74% of his games? He does not do this with arrogance, merely bewilderment.

"I never claimed to be a genius or Hall of Fame coach at 33," Lavin said. "Will I be a better coach next year than this year? I hope so.

"Will I be better the year after that? I hope so. That's what I'm trying to do, get better."

That's all anyone can ask.

But this being UCLA basketball, it is also precisely what they expect.

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