March 17, 2000
UCLA coach Steve Lavin just chuckled and ran his hand nervously over his slicked-down helmet of hair Thursday night. Such are the perils of coaching a team with more youth than basketball sense, and more talent than skill.
It's a feeling Gary Williams says he knows well from a season leading a similarly talented, but untested Maryland team. The two squads, both of whose best days likely are still in the future, will meet in the present - tonight at the Metrodome.
UCLA and Maryland have two of college basketball's most enviable collections of young talent on their rosters, but only one will advance - perhaps ahead of their coaches' schedules - to the Midwest Regional semifinals.
In fact, Maryland and UCLA followed similar paths to their second-round matchup. Both began the season with untested rosters, both benefited from the unexpected emergence of a high-scoring youngster, and both have caused their coaches to re-examine the way they prepare and motivate their players.
"You talk more to individual players with younger teams," Williams said. "Things are going to distract them a lot easier. That's part of the deal when you have young players: It's not really cemented until you get through that year together."
Both teams appear to be progressing ahead of schedule, though it didn't appear that way for the Bruins until three weeks ago. UCLA has won seven straight games, including a 65-57 win over Ball State on Thursday, on the way to its 12th straight 20-win season.
"It's not about being young. That's not important," Gadzuric said. "It's about the heart you show and the way you listen to your coach."
Meanwhile, Maryland went 24-9 and finished a surprising second in the ACC before routing Iona 74-59 in the first round.
Maryland's scoring attack is keyed around Juan Dixon, a chopstick-thin shooting guard who led the Terrapins in scoring with 18 points per game. Dixon spent his freshman year in Steve Francis' shadow, but he showed resiliency and consistency on the way to an All-ACC first team berth.
Dixon is complemented by sophomore Lonny Baxter inside. Maryland also might start two freshmen tonight. Along with Jason Blake, who has been the team's starting point guard all season, Tahj Holden will start if sophomore Danny Miller's sprained left ankle keeps him out.
Observers of the Maryland program have said Williams has toned down the ranting and raving that once defined him as a coach in an effort to better communicate with his youngsters.
"I don't think I'm an especially patient person, but with these guys, you do more teaching," Williams said. "We have to execute really well every game. We're not at the point yet where we can just throw talent out there and blow people away."
While Dixon gave Maryland's season some direction, UCLA might have been lost without the emergence of freshman Jason Kapono, a 6-foot-7 pure shooter who was the Bruins' most steady scorer at 16.4 points per game and an all-conference first-teamer.
Though Lavin thought Kapono was the most skilled freshman he'd seen, the coach didn't expect Kapono to be his most reliable player.
"He's above and beyond what we hoped he would be in his first year," Lavin said. "We thought we would need to work on our team maturity and our ability to fight through adversity, but Jason has turned out to be one of our leaders instead of one of our followers. He surprised me, but only a little bit."
Both teams enjoy playing up-tempo styles that sometimes look like a high school All-American game. But whatever their offensive indiscretions, both teams are grounded in solid defense.
"It might not look like it sometimes, but we play with a purpose," Kapono said. "Coach Lavin has trusted me and all of us, and we don't want to let him down. That's the goal for all young players."
By GREG BEACHAM
AP Sports Writer