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Season for Bruin Doubters

Times Staff Writer

The season hasn’t started, and UCLA already has suffered its worst loss at Pauley Pavilion and dropped two exhibitions for the first time.

The season hasn’t started, and boos already have rained from the rafters like pepper into soup, searing the impressionable psyches of freshmen post players Michael Fey and Ryan Hollins.

The season hasn’t started, and senior Jason Kapono already is apologizing for the team’s lack of intensity in a 25-point exhibition loss. The Bruins also lost their second exhibition, by six points.

“This is tough to swallow,” he said. “It will definitely mean we need to bring maximum passion to the practice floor. When you don’t play defense and don’t play hard, you get exposed.”

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Only exhibitions, yes.

But, quite an exhibition they were.

UCLA was trounced by a hastily assembled collection of players called Branch West Academy. Then it happened again, losing to EA Sports, a team that was 0-12 before beating the Bruins.

Crushed along the way was a good portion of the buoyancy that normally accompanies a new season.

Preseason polls have saluted UCLA, which despite losing three starters and a combined 39.3 points and 17.4 rebounds a game, is ranked No. 15 by the Associated Press and as high as No. 10 in other polls.

The return of Kapono -- the leading scorer the last three seasons -- along with the expected maturation of junior T.J. Cummings and sophomores Cedric Bozeman and Dijon Thompson, the addition of seasoned perimeter threats Ray Young and Jon Crispin, and the sky-high potential of Fey and Hollins had given rise to considerable optimism.

Not to mention a purported change of attitude.

“We don’t need to go through the infamous grinder-holy smokes-down-by-10-to-Podunk-U stuff,” Kapono said. “If we are going to lose, we’ll all have floor burns, cuts and scrapes.”

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All it took was debacles in games that don’t count, though, and the positive feelings were exposed as wafer-thin. The already tepid support for Coach Steve Lavin among Bruin fans is on the verge of a full-scale freeze out. Fair or not.

Entering his seventh year, Lavin has a 135-59 record and has led the Bruins to five Sweet 16s, including last season on the strength of a double-overtime upset of Cincinnati. But wolves are constantly at his door, for early season blunders, Pacific 10 Conference stumbles and an inability to get beyond the Sweet 16.

And he is still so young, just 38, nary a wrinkle in his well-tanned forehead, bald spot on his pate or crack in his golly-gee smile.

What, Lavin worry?

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“There will be growing pains, but I think that by the end of the season we should be in a position to make another run,” he said. “I like this team, I like the blend of old and new, I like the athleticism and the energy.”

Energy, though, was noticeably absent in the exhibitions. Same with defense, passion and any other intangible a coach is charged with igniting.

“We went to Kansas and Georgia, and they’re out there playing hard every minute,” said Brian Jones, a former Santa Clara guard who played for EA Sports. “UCLA was waiting, waiting, and they never turned it on. They looked like they were second-guessing themselves.”

New UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero watched the games from the front row with his arms folded across his chest. After the Branch West trouncing he said the experience was “instructive.”

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A strong start -- something the Bruins haven’t exactly specialized in recently -- will be necessary to quell the burgeoning riot. But a schedule that includes early games against Duke, Kansas, Michigan and St. John’s might not be accommodating.

“This is the most challenging schedule of my career,” Lavin said.

Defeating high-profile opponents on a national stage is something the Bruins have repeatedly accomplished.

This time, however, UCLA takes the floor less with experience than potential. Lavin won’t start Fey or Hollins early on, preferring a lineup of 6-foot-10 Cummings and four perimeter players -- Kapono, senior Ray Young and sophomores Bozeman and Thompson.

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Rebounding and interior defense are glaring question marks, although the shortest starter is Young at 6-4.

“We can have four perimeter players around T.J., but actually it gives us a lot of size,” Lavin said. “Sometimes perimeter players are better at rebounding because they have quick feet and can position themselves well.”

Fey, a wide-body center, and Hollins, a lithe pogo stick, are certain to experience growing pains. Both, eventually, should be competent players. But with sophomore power forward Andre Patterson ineligible until at least mid-December, the front line will be hard-pressed to make up for the loss of last season’s center, Dan Gadzuric, and power forward, Matt Barnes.

“We can score, we all love to score, but we have to play defense to win,” Cummings said.

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Perimeter shooting could carry the Bruins. Kapono is the school’s all-time leading three-point shooter. Young spent the off-season honing his jumper. Crispin was a long-range threat for two years at Penn State and Cummings possesses a strong mid-range shot.

Bozeman and Thompson were much improved by the end of last season and are essential components of the Bruin press. Point guard Ryan Walcott is a sparkplug off the bench.

The talent is there. In fact, someone respected for his knowledge of the game was not the slightest dismayed by the lackluster Bruin performance against Branch West.

“They have tons of talent and they are just beginning to feel out what to do,” he said. “They have all the pieces and are trying fit them into the puzzle. Give them time. They’ll be fine.”

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The expert is Doug Gottlieb, the 26-year-old Branch West point guard who set NCAA records for assists at Oklahoma State. His father, Bob, is the Branch West coach. Gottlieb respects Lavin for his track record of motivating the Bruins while dodging bullets.

“One thing that makes Steve such a great coach is that he gets guys to play at an unbelievable level when they need to the most,” he said.

With Guerrero in evaluation mode and fans uneasy, the Bruins might need to reach that level not only before the NCAA tournament, but before the ball falls to mark the New Year.


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