Ten national championship banners hang in Pauley Pavilion, ever-present reminders of how things used to be—but no longer are—at UCLA. The Bruins of old had little in common with last season's team, which self-destructed in a one-on-one panic against Utah in the NCAA tournament. This brought a bitter ending to the college careers of Rod Foster, Michael Holton and Darren Daye, who as freshmen had gone to the national championship game before losing to Louisville. And when that Utah debacle was over, season-long whispers that several players were spoiled and selfish turned into headlines.
Larry Farmer knows he will be under the microscope again in his third year as coach. At UCLA, being 44-12 in two regular seasons means nothing when you are 0-1 in the tournament and your players have treated the tenets of John Wooden like so much Confederate money.
But Farmer should get a chance to improve that postseason record substantially, because UCLA, which in 1982-83 won the Pac-10 while going 23-6, has the best overall talent in the league. And it sounds as if the Bruins finally might have the chemistry to make the most of it. "This team realizes its biggest strength is that it can play together," said Farmer, who is 32 and has been at UCLA as player or coach every season but one since 1969-70. "I don't think we can go in different directions and be successful."
One man Farmer definitely wants pulling in the right direction this season is All-America senior Forward Kenny Fields (right). After an off-season of soul searching, Fields decided to forestall a pro career and dedicate himself to taking UCLA to the Final Four. "As much as Coach talked about it, last year no player realized his role," Fields says. "The seniors were thinking about their numbers, and everyone wanted to shoot. You can't win like that. It destroyed our team and our morale, and it showed to the utmost when we played Utah."
Fields was Pac-10 Player of the Year in 1982-83, but he readily admits his defense and rebounding were below par because he wasn't in shape. He impressed Farmer by trimming down from 235 to 220 through daily summer workouts with teammates Ralph Jackson and Gary Maloncon. "My main job now is to rebound," he says. "It kills me to see what I got last year [6.6 a game]. I may average only 15 or 16 points, but I feel I have to average between 10 and 12 rebounds a game."
Because he was one of the players labeled as selfish in a postseason Los Angeles Times article, Fields is on a mission to establish himself as team leader. "I have the killer attitude for the first time since I was a freshman," he says. "We are hungry. We aren't going to lose the first playoff game. That's just out of the question."
When it comes to hunger, 7-foot junior Center Stuart Gray probably leads the Pac-10. Not only is Gray determined to show that he can be a dominating center—he averaged just 7.7 points and 6.9 rebounds per game last season—but he has stopped eating a pizza before bedtime. "That wasn't good for me," he says. Burp.
With his new diet and an aerobics program, Gray has gone from 260 to 235 and reduced his body fat from a non-athletic 21% to 8%. Gray will have to be leaner and meaner to deal with his new role on the team, which is to score, rebound and play defense in quantity and quality. Gray realizes that, because of his "docile" image, he's on the spot again. "This team will be a success if I come along further than I did last year," he says. "The difference is, I don't doubt myself anymore."
Farmer was notably tougher on Gray in the preseason. When he caught Gray pouting during one practice session, he yelled, "What's wrong with you, Stuart? Are you mad because [a teammate] didn't pass you the ball? I won't have you out here with that attitude. Now come on and play ball." Gray got the message and began to play harder.
UCLA appears to have the right components to complement Fields and Gray. Filling out the front line will be either Maloncon or quick Swingman Nigel Miguel, both juniors. Two-year starter Jackson will man the point, secure that he's the undisputed floor leader. Alongside him, at shooting guard, will be Montel Hatcher, an All-America at Santa Monica High with a 41-inch vertical leap and zone-breaking range on his jumper. Hatcher, who decided to redshirt his freshman year because of academic reasons, wears a T shirt emblazoned TALK IS CHEAP and downplays comparisons between himself and Foster. "The only shoes that I have to fill here will be my own," he says.
But at UCLA, the shoes are always large.