March 16, 2000
After all, in each of the UCLA coach's first three seasons in Westwood, he dealt with a late-season crisis involving a 6-foot-10 big man. What's one more?
Near the end of the Bruins' light practice at the Metrodome on Wednesday night, Gadzuric left the court wincing in pain after colliding awkwardly with a teammate and the ball. He sat on the sideline with his head down before walking to the locker room with a bag of ice on his left hand.
"When he got hurt, part of me was thinking that's par for the course," Lavin said. "That (could be) the fourth year we've lost our 6-10 center at the NCAA tournament."
Lavin said his starting center suffered a minor sprain to his left thumb, an injury that might affect his shooting touch, but which shouldn't keep him out of sixth-seeded UCLA's first-round game against No. 11 Ball State tonight.
"We'll probably have to take the left-handed sky hook out of his arsenal," Lavin said with a grin.
In the other late game, No. 3 Maryland takes on No. 14 Iona.
Injuries haven't usually been funny for Lavin, the 35-year-old wunderkind coach who has drawn both ardent praise and harsh criticism during his four seasons in the L.A. fishbowl. Whatever the knocks against him, almost everyone can agree on one thing about Lavin: He knows how to handle a crisis.
Lavin's teams usually have finished the season strong despite adversity. Star center Jelani McCoy was knocked out of the 1997 tournament with an injury, and McCoy quit the team in mid-February two years ago, but the Bruins won a combined five NCAA tournament games in the two years.
Last year, Gadzuric suffered a season-ending knee injury in late February, but the rest of the Bruins' roster was solid - so of course UCLA suffered a shocking 56-53 loss to Detroit in the first round.
The current Bruins (19-11) literally saved their season with six straight wins to close the regular season, including a victory over then-No. 1 Stanford. UCLA made the tournament for the 12th straight time by going on its longest winning streak in three years.
That success ensured a spot in the NCAA's bracket. The NCAA then sent the Bruins to frigid Minneapolis, where the players were still adjusting to 30-degree days after arriving from 80-degree weather in Westwood earlier Wednesday.
"I had to wear a sweater on campus, and I was sweating all day," junior point guard Earl Watson said with a grin. "It paid off when I got here, though."
Now that the postseason has safely been reached, last year's loss to Detroit weighs heavily on the Bruins' minds. Lavin never tires of pointing out that that team was the youngest in school history, but the players who remember the defeat aren't interested in excuses.
"I remember that loss precisely," Watson said. "Every single moment at the locker room, every single minute on the way to the bus and the flight back home. We've talked about getting back to this point. I think we have a lot of motivation this year, probably more than any other team. We have a lot of unfinished business here in the tournament."
Lavin used 12 starting lineups during the regular season, and it wouldn't be inconceivable to see the Bruins with a 13th combination on the court tonight. The coach said he hadn't decided how best to attack Ball State's perimeter game, led by high-scoring guard Duane Clemens.
Lavin could choose to start JaRon Rush, the talented sophomore forward whose lengthy NCAA suspension was reduced in time to allow him to return to the team in time to hit the winning shot against Stanford.
He could start co-captain and defensive specialist Rico Hines, who said his injured toe is "100 percent - it's my conditioning that isn't 100 percent yet." About the only player certain to be in the starting lineup is Jason Kapono, the Pac-10 Co-Freshman of the Year and the team's leading scorer with 16.4 points per game.
If the Bruins can make it past Ball State, they will likely face an intriguing second-round matchup with No. 3 Maryland, another team relying on young players to advance quickly. Of the 11 UCLA players who have seen significant playing time this year, only forward Sean Farnham is a senior.
If all of the key players from this season's team return next fall, Lavin and the Bruins will have no more excuses for not making the most of their talent. But that's of no concern to Lavin, who wants his team of tomorrow to perform today.
"This is a mature basketball team, partly because they're a year older, and (because) the kind of season we went through has been good preparation for the NCAA tournament," Lavin said. "We expect a lot."
By GREG BEACHAM
AP Sports Writer