March 22, 2000
LOS ANGELES - There's a reason the UCLA Bruins look cool and collected and are cruising in the NCAA tournament.
They have been playing "tournament" games for more than a month.
After a midseason swoon left them at 13-11, the Bruins realistically saw every game down the stretch as single-elimination - a loss and no NCAA bid.
"It's unusual that you have to win all of the final six games," UCLA coach Steve Lavin said. "Because we put ourselves in a hole, we were in the situation where every game became a must-win, backs-to-the-wall, Russian Roulette, NCAA tournament sense of urgency every game.
"We played in six of those, so for three weeks, we were essentially simulating all the conditions that we face in the NCAA tournament. As a result, after the Ball State and Maryland games, it was kind of business as usual."
After losing by 29 points at Arizona State and 15 points at Arizona last month, UCLA closed the regular season with a rush, a six-game winning streak that included an upset of then-No. 1 Stanford in the Cardinal's gym.
Their two NCAA tournament victories extended the Bruins' streak to eight straight, and, sporting a more respectable 21-11 record, they face Iowa State (31-4) in the Midwest Regional semifinals Thursday night at Auburn Hills, Mich.
"I think we're going to be loose and have fun," said forward JaRon Rush, who returned to the Bruins' lineup to play in the upset of Stanford on March 4 after being suspended for taking improper payments.
"We basically need to contain Marcus Fizer," Rush said of Iowa State's All-American forward. "If we can, it will really help us."
Rush said the Bruins seem to be clicking now.
"We're playing good defense, and on offense, we have people penetrating and we're hitting most of our wide-open shots," he said. "Before, we just took shots too early, but now we're being patient and letting things come to us.
"We're all very unselfish with the ball. Coach Lavin talks about that all the time in practice."
Despite recent success, Lavin doesn't worry about his players being overly confident.
"They're not very impressed with themselves and they are aware they still have a lot of deficiencies to work on and that their best basketball is still ahead of them," the coach said.
He believes losing actually helped them to take winning in stride.
"The Stanford game, because they were No. 1 in the country, that obviously was an emotional game," he said. "But other than that, they've been pretty levelheaded after both wins and losses."
Even following the 105-70 blowout of Maryland in the second round, a game they completely dominated, the Bruins didn't really celebrate.
"What I sensed in the locker room after the Maryland game was that we were kind of focused on our next opponent, realized that this was just one more step toward the ultimate goal, the national championship," Lavin said.
"Part of the reason the team acts more mature, and it's still a young team, is the fact they played the second most difficult schedule in the country behind Kentucky, and then the factor of losing six out of seven at one point, which I think kind of gave us some battle scars."
He worried during that rocky period that the team might lose its confidence.
"With this team, I've always worried more about our confidence being fragile. With past UCLA teams, my concern was maybe exaggerated opinions of themselves or a weak schedule that might lead to kind of a fools' gold false sense of security about the team's abilities," Lavin said.
"But this team, because they were playing a difficult schedule and because of the personality of the team, I was more concerned about them having confidence, to keep their heads up and keep working during the tough stretch in the middle of the season because I knew we were capable of doing special things."
He said the biggest challenge thus was to keep the players' spirits up while they were losing.
"That's a bigger challenge in this town more than another town, because when it's bad in Los Angeles, it's really bad," Lavin said. "As a coach you try to find a middle ground to keep them where the reality is - we're never as good as people think we are and we're never as bad as people think we are."
By KEN PETERS
AP Sports Writer