March 20, 2000
MINNEAPOLIS - There was a sense of bewildered awe in the Metrodome moments after UCLA's thrashing of Maryland.
Just about everyone who saw the game had trouble comprehending the basketball recital put on by the Bruins in advancing to the round of 16 with a 105-70 victory Saturday night. From the alley-oops to the 3-pointers to the tough defense to the otherworldly performance of point guard Earl Watson, everyone seemed taken aback by the splendid cohesion of a sublimely talented but underachieving UCLA team.
Everyone but Steve Lavin, that is.
The Bruins coach was understated and matter-of-fact when speaking about his team's dominant performance, calling it nothing more than "another step forward." He said he thought UCLA's performance in its win over then-No. 1 Stanford two weeks ago was better.
The Bruins' demolition of the ACC's No. 2 team and the Midwest Regional's third seed, he said, was just "a solid performance" - though he was alone in that opinion among the players and his assistant coaches.
After four years of controversy in Westwood, perhaps Lavin can be excused for being a bit wary of praise, especially when it comes from the same people who have criticized him this year.
In fact, he admitted he was already thinking ahead to Thursday's matchup with second-seeded Iowa State in Auburn Hills, Mich.
"It's not that I'm not pleased with the way we've been playing, but this isn't the point in the season to start thinking about how great we are or how great I am," Lavin said.
Few coaches have endured more criticism in a four-year period than Lavin, who was thrown into his first head coaching job when Jim Harrick was fired in November 1996. Lavin admitted he wasn't entirely ready for the situation, and the media and the fans never hesitated to remind him of his inexperience.
They said he couldn't design a game plan. They said he wasn't a teacher. Despite taking two of his first three teams to the round of 16, they wanted more. When UCLA struggled this season, losing six of seven during Pac-10 play, the volume of dissent only increased.
But Lavin never lost faith in the players he recruited, even when suspensions and injuries threatened to kill UCLA's season. The players rewarded him with an eight-game winning streak, including Saturday's easy win.
UCLA routed Maryland in spectacular fashion. The Bruins looked like the world's most impressive summer-league team, repeatedly connecting on lob passes and long 3-pointers that are easy in video games, but hard in real life.
When it was over, UCLA had handed Maryland the worst loss for a No. 3 seed in a second-round game since the NCAA began seeding the tournament in 1979. The 35-point margin matched the worst tournament loss in Terrapins history.
Watson had 17 points, set a school record with 16 assists and made no turnovers. He did it all despite receiving a cut above his right eye that needed two stitches to close.
"I just try to get guys the ball in the right place," Watson said. "Now that everybody is back from injuries and suspensions and what have you, we're a really good team. Coach Lavin just told us to stay together, and everything would be all right."
The team's injury problems have mostly faded from view as a suddenly energized UCLA team prepares to face All-American Marcus Fizer and All-Big 12 guard Jamaal Tinsley.
The tendinitis suffered by Dan Gadzuric in the preseason and again in late February hasn't been a factor, and Ryan Bailey's foot problems haven't resurfaced. In addition, JaRon Rush looks to be in top form after playing just eight games this season.
"We're right where we want to be," Kapono said. "We're all healthy and we're all on the same page as a team."
By GREG BEACHAM AP Sports Writer