March 18, 2001
GREENSBORO, N.C. - Earl Watson was a homesick freshman the last time he played Duke.
Lost in the hustle and bustle at UCLA and lonely for his family back in Kansas City, his miserable performance in that 120-84 drubbing was just another reason why Watson wanted to pack up and go home.
Bruins coach Steve Lavin talked him out of it, just as he did on several other occasions when Watson needed assurance that he belonged at UCLA.
Four years later, Watson can't imagine life without UCLA. He cried like a baby after Senior Night and grabbed Lavin in a long, emotional embrace after the Bruins beat Utah State on Saturday to advance to the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament.
That victory set up a rematch next week with Duke, where Watson and UCLA (23-8) get a chance to atone for the 1998 debacle.
"It's been a long road, one I couldn't have made without coach," he said. "He's always been there for me, like a brother. When I was down and homesick, he talked to me about other things and convinced me how silly it would all seem two weeks down the road."
Lavin chooses his words carefully when he remembers those days, his eyes dropping down as a wave of emotion hits him.
"He was very introverted when he came to UCLA, very quiet and very shy," Lavin said. "He was very slow to trust people and I don't know why.
"The quantum leaps he has made are really special and I've been really blessed to play a small part in his development. He's gone from not being sure he belonged to one of the all-time greats, kind of turned into the mayor of Westwood."
There's a strong bond between Lavin and these Bruins. Although this year marks the fourth time in his five seasons he's taken UCLA into the round of 16, this is the first time he's done it with a team made up strictly of players he recruited.
They've been through thick and thin with Lavin, supporting him every time their play led to questions about his job security, and turned it up a notch when he drew fire after their 4-4 start this season.
"If I'm going to struggle, this is a group I want to struggle with," Lavin said. "This is a remarkable group - their maturity, character, togetherness - seeing their individual and collective improvement has made this a special season for me."
Watson now has a chance to come full circle with Lavin when UCLA faces Duke (31-4) next week in Philadelphia.
That first meeting against the Blue Devils was Watson's 26th start and it was awful - he had two points, two turnovers, one assist and one rebound in 27 minutes.
Watson makes it clear, though, that he won't be haunted by memories of that 1998 game and that the Bruins will not fear Duke.
"We're a whole different team than we were three years ago," the senior guard said. "Duke's like any other team to me - they're great, they have a lot of tradition. But you don't go to UCLA and say, 'I want to play Duke really bad."'
And Watson is quick to point out that UCLA has its own tradition for Duke to handle.
"We're UCLA ... we carry a legacy," he said. ""Not only do we have to face them, but they have to face us.
"It's going to be a battle. It's going to be a war."
By JENNA FRYER
AP Sports Writer