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Freedom of The Press
Two long letters from college basketball royalty landed on the desk of UCLA coach Steve Lavin one day last week. In one, Pete Newell extolled the remarkable tenacity of the No. 12 Bruins, who in a matter of weeks have gone from punch lines to Pac-10 title contenders. In the other, John Wooden advised Lavin to ignore criticism and praise, the better to focus on UCLA's resurgence. "The swings in five years [in the perception] of who I am—they're all over the map, and none of them are right," Lavin says, chuckling. "If my concern was to get respect from the media and the masses, I'd end up in a padded cell wearing a straitjacket."
Still, while the L.A. press had a field day with the Bruins after their disappointing 4-4 start, a withering press of another variety has been UCLA's salvation. Lavin's epiphany came at half-time of a game against North Carolina on Dec. 23, when he decided to implement a full-court defense full time. UCLA erased an 18-point deficit, and though the Tar Heels won 80-70, the Bruins haven't come out of the press since. "We take a lot out of a team, and you can see that late in games," says senior guard Earl Watson. Sure enough, with wins over Arizona and Stanford and a sweep of USC, UCLA (19-6, 12-2 in the Pac-10) has gone 15-2 since turning up the pressure and goes into this week's showdowns against Cal and No. 1 Stanford with a chance to win the Pac-10 title.
There's plenty of credit to go around on a veteran team with seven players who have scored 20 or more points in a game this season. UCLA's most improved performer is 6'7" tough-guy junior forward Matt Barnes, point man for the press. Junior center Dan Gadzuric, once considered a malingerer, pulled a Willis Reed in the win over Arizona on Feb. 15, coming back from a nasty left ankle sprain five days earlier to get 22 points and 17 rebounds. Meanwhile, surfer-dude forward Jason Kapono is averaging a team-high 17.5 points.
The Clint Eastwood of West-wood is Watson, an ageless gun-slinger both on the court—where he's on track to become the first Bruin to start every game in his four-year career—and off, where he has become a vocal critic of the athletic department, notably athletic director Peter Dalis. Dalis caused a firestorm in January by admitting he'd had two phone conversations with job-hunting Rick Pitino, despite having told Lavin he hadn't spoken to Pitino. "Loyalty has been lost in college basketball, and there's a great example here at UCLA," says Watson. "Coach [Jim] Harrick gets fired for lying, and four years later someone else lies too."
What's more, Watson has called for students to get more of the good seats at Pauley Pavilion, and he has made it known he'd be happy not to see Dalis (who hasn't apologized to Lavin for the Pitino matter) make any more locker-room speeches, as he did following the Arizona win. "When things are bad, everyone is ignoring you, but as soon as you go on a win streak, people start showing up in the locker room trying to give talks," Watson says.
Something approaching a sense of calm now reigns. Last week Dalis announced that he expects Lavin to return next season, and the coach recently had a long, positive talk with UCLA chancellor Al Carnesale. "I'm just glad we can move forward," Lavin says. "This job is challenging enough. You don't need any of that extra stuff."
Revise the RPI
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), which was formulated to help the NCAA basketball committee assemble and seed the field for the NCAA tournament. The committee has long insisted that the RPI isn't that big a factor, but since the selection process is done in secret and the RPI's exact formula is secret as well, legions of coaches and fans have their doubts about that assertion.
The RPI that's published in newspapers and on the Web—and acknowledged to be close to accurate by former selection committee members—is derived from three components: a team's winning percentage (25%), its opponents' winning percentage (50%) and its opponents' opponents' winning percentage (25%). However, because the formula doesn't distinguish between games at home or on the road, it gives teams in the power conferences a huge advantage. They can assemble gaudy home records in November and December by paying more financially challenged opponents upwards of $50,000 to come to their gyms. Then, since the power teams only play one another after January, their RPIs stay high in conference play, win or lose.