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Lavin’s Young Bruins Low-Bridged by Branch

Got a good feeling about this UCLA season.

Why? As Robin Williams said in “The World According to Garp” when he made an on-the-spot decision to buy a house after a plane had just crashed into it, “It’s been pre-disastered!”

Every couple of years, Steve Lavin’s team endures a loss that belongs in the UCLA record books, such as the school’s largest losing margin, 48 points at Stanford in 1997, or fewest points scored at Pauley Pavilion, 43 against Gonzaga in 1999.

The Bruins lost their first exhibition game in nine years this week, falling to Branch West Basketball Academy on Wednesday, 92-67.

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“It’s always been a setback or even a [bad] stretch that’s become our springboard,” Lavin said Friday. “I think it’s because we learn more through setback or failure.

“I’m kind of glad, from the standpoint that we were kind of humbled and humiliated. We can go back to the floor and try to get better.”

Bruin fans, your worst fears were realized. They desperately missed Dan Gadzuric in the middle and were outrebounded, 45-24.

Point guard Cedric Bozeman’s assist-to-turnover ratio was even, at 3-3.

They couldn’t free their top scoring threat, Jason Kapono, and four players took more shots than he did.

They still have four months to address those questions, but right now there’s this: Branch West Academy?

It sounds like some ritzy prep school. Actually, it’s a developmental program to help get basketball scholarships for high school players with college aspirations, featured on the Web site www.branchwest.com. It’s run by Bob Gottlieb, who was a head coach at Jacksonville and the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, and an assistant under Eddie Sutton at Creighton, Tex Winter at Long Beach State and Ralph Miller at Oregon State.

The 10-year-old program has branches in Thousand Oaks and Huntington Beach. It features three AAU teams, as well as the traveling team of former college players that plays exhibitions against NCAA teams.

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Gottlieb’s Branch West Basketball Academy also takes second billing to his wife’s interior design company on their home office answering machine.

“She’s the boss,” Gottlieb said.

The roster constantly shifts, but Wednesday’s edition of Branch West (the name pays homage to his father’s New York Ford dealership, Branch Motors), featured Gottlieb’s son Doug, the point guard on the Oklahoma State team that went to the Elite Eight in 2000, and Horacio Llamas, who played 28 NBA games with the Phoenix Suns. Against the Bruins, they were led by former Quinnipiac scorer Nate Poindexter, who had 21 points and 12 rebounds. Llamas had 15 points and 10 rebounds and Gottlieb made all six of his shots, including four three-pointers, for 16 points.

Branch West made 52.5% of its shots, 14 of 25 from three-point range. Exhibition teams often have hectic travel schedules -- Branch West arrived at the arena at 6:30 for a 7 p.m tipoff against Mississippi State and wound up losing by 20 -- but Gottlieb made sure his team had three days off before facing the Bruins.

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“We knew UCLA was going to be a special game for us,” Gottlieb said.

“Then we caught a hot hand. We shot the lights out. There weren’t too many teams that were going to beat us.”

Especially a team that featured six players making their first appearances in UCLA uniforms. It’s a team that’s short on veterans. It has only two seniors, Kapono and Ray Young, and Young redshirted last season. Junior T.J. Cummings has started only seven games.

“I think this still is going to be a damn good UCLA team,” Gottlieb said. “My only concern from Steve’s point of view is ... talent but inexperience. They don’t have enough juniors and seniors that are going to be key players. You define a team by its junior and senior class, not its freshman and sophomore class.”

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He could see that inexperience show in Dijon Thompson, who showed flashes last year that he has it.

“He’s going to be a top-flight player,” Gottlieb said. “He still looks like he’s not ready in terms of self-confidence. He turned down a couple of open shots that, if he were a mature, confident player, he would not turn down.”

He liked the big kids, 6-foot-11 Michael Fey and Ryan Hollins, even though they scored only two points apiece and Fey grabbed two rebounds.

“I think Fey is one of the big keys,” Gottlieb said. “They really need his size and rebounding and inside presence. How fast he comes is going to be the key to their season.”

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“Hollins has tremendous upside. He’s probably a little more away.”

The only good thing for the Bruins is that inexperience diminishes with every game. The freshmen will practically be sophomores, the sophomores nearly juniors by the time the NCAA tournament rolls around. That’s when Lavin’s teams tend to peak and make it all seem better, anyway.

Gottlieb had to go. His flight was about to leave for his team’s next game, against Marshall in West Virginia today.

The Bruins don’t leave the state until they face Duke at Indianapolis later this month. Even before they get to the treacherous part of a schedule that Lavin called the toughest since he got here, they have a long way to go.

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“It may get worse before it gets better,” Lavin said. “The whole idea is, come March, we could be a dangerous team. You just don’t know until you actually start playing the games. That’s what’s good about finding out as soon as possible where the deficiencies lie. Sometimes the bottom falls out [during the season] and there’s not enough time to patch it up.”

Lavin used a lot of sailing metaphors. But it might be easiest to sum it by saying the ship’s taking on water ... and it hasn’t even left the dock.

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J.A. Adande can be reached at j.a.adande@latimes.com.

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