To paraphrase the Four Tops, it's the same old song for the UCLA Bruins. They are quick, talented and two-deep at every position and have four starters returning from a team that went 21-6. But it wasn't exactly the same old song last season: The Bruins finished second to Oregon State in the Pacific-10, and they sat out the NCAA playoffs because of a one-year NCAA ban imposed on the school for recruiting violations. It was only the second time in 21 years the Bruins had missed the NCAAs.
The black-and-gold plaque on Coach Larry Farmer's desk reads I'M JUST HAPPY TO BE HERE, but after UCLA staggered to losses in its first three Pac-10 games, Farmer was anything but happy. The first-year coach benched Rod Foster for 12 games because of the Rocket Man's poor shot selection and worse defense. Senior Darren Daye, a starter as a sophomore, played only 38 minutes in his first four games last year. Stuart Gray, the 7-foot wunderkind who dominated fellow freshmen Pat Ewing and Greg Dreiling at the National Sports Festival in Syracuse in 1981, became a chubby, injury-plagued court recluse who refused to shoot.
But after Farmer appealed to the Bruins' pride in a mid-season team meeting, the players decided to make the "regular season our tournament," as Foster puts it. Though they never got the help they expected from Gray, they won 15 of their last 16 games. With the talent on hand now, UCLA should play in a real tournament this year. The Bruin roster remains virtually intact from last season, and Farmer's new 1-4 offense makes better use of his personnel. Up front, 6'7" Kenny Fields, the team's top returning scorer and rebounder, will pound the boards with the 6'10" Brad Wright. The resurgent Gray is 15 pounds trimmer and more confident offensively. "People are expecting the same guy as last year," he says. "They're going to get someone different." Not in the backcourt, though. Foster, who averaged 10.3 points per game last-year and whose 95.0% free-throw rate set an NCAA record, and Daye, silky-smooth and power forward-sized, will gun from the wings. Junior Ralph Jackson is back to direct an offense that should be more up-tempo. And Guard Michael Holton will come off the bench to tune the defense.