Freedom of The Press
After a poor start, UCLA turned its season around by turning on
the full-court pressure
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
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
halftime 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
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 Westwood is Watson, an ageless gunslinger
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." --Grant Wahl
Revise the RPI
System Unfair to Little Guys
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.
"I see teams playing 18 home games," says Wyoming coach Steve
McClain. "They bought eight of them against teams rated 200 or
worse, and they still have a high RPI. We get penalized because
we can't get teams to play us in Laramie."
Once a team gets a reputation for pulling upsets, it can't even
get a road game against power conference teams. "A few years ago
we could call anybody and say we'd play at their place, and
they'd say fine," says Hofstra coach Jay Wright, whose team
through Sunday was 23-4 and ranked 61st in the RPI. "Now they
just say no thanks."
The same fate has befallen Gonzaga, which was ranked 85th despite
a 21-6 overall record and a 13-1 mark in the West Coast
Conference. Given that the lowest-ranked at-large team ever
invited to the tournament was No. 74 New Mexico in 1999, the
Bulldogs will be in a perilous position if they don't win their
league tournament next week. "The schools from the power
conferences are always in better shape than the rest of us,"
Gonzaga coach Mark Few says.
If the NCAA really wants the RPI to serve as an objective
measurement, it needs to alter the way it's calculated. One way
would be to give added weight to out-of-conference road wins.
This would help those mid-major teams that must play on hostile
courts and help equalize matters with teams like Syracuse, which
played 10 of its first 13 games at home and is still ranked 18th
in the RPI despite an unimpressive 8-6 record in league play.
Big East Commissioner and NCAA tournament committee chairman Mike
Tranghese counters by saying, "There's no such thing as a perfect
system." Maybe not, but the current system could be made less
imperfect if the power conferences were willing to relinquish
some of their power.
The Resilient Gators
Snapping Back From Adversity
Even as it was experiencing its most triumphant week of the
season, Florida could not escape misfortune and heartbreak.
Moments after drubbing No. 12 Mississippi 75-55 on Feb. 21, the
Gators huddled in their locker room and prayed for senior forward
Brent Wright, who left the game in the second half after
reaggravating a stress fracture in his right foot. The next
morning coach Billy Donovan attended a private ceremony at the
grave of his stillborn daughter, Jacqueline, whom Donovan's wife,
Christine, had delivered on Nov. 2. Then a pastor visited
practice last Friday and, illustrating the importance of faith,
told the players about his wife's yearlong battle with bone
marrow cancer, which finds her in partial remission. "This is a
very spiritual group of kids," Donovan says. "When you go through
what we've gone through this year, you're always looking for a
source of strength."
Indeed, few teams have been tested over the last three months as
Florida has, but the Gators have never lost faith. Last Saturday
they won for the ninth time in their last 10 games by defeating
No. 14 Alabama 89-68 to improve to 20-5 (10-4 in the SEC) and to
No. 6 in the latest AP poll. "All the adversity has helped us,"
says sophomore guard Brett Nelson, who through Sunday was second
in the SEC in assists (with a 4.4 average) and ninth in scoring
(14.8). "It brought us closer together."
From a basketball standpoint Florida hit its nadir on Jan. 17,
when sophomore guard Justin Hamilton tore the ACL in his left
knee while attempting a breakaway layup during a 75-72 loss to
Georgia. The Gators were already missing Wright, who had not
played since breaking his foot on Jan. 4, and 5'11" junior guard
Teddy Dupay, who underwent surgery on Jan. 10 to repair a
herniated disk. With seven scholarship players available, the
Gators lost their next game, 63-61 at home to Vanderbilt, and
morale was low. "It felt as if the wheels were falling off,"
Florida got a lift on Jan. 30 when Dupay returned only 20 days
after his surgery and scored 10 points in 15 minutes in an 81-67
win over Tennessee. After missing four games following an
operation to put a compression screw in his fractured foot,
Wright also came back--but only briefly. He broke his right thumb
on Feb. 10 and had to have surgery for that. He returned to the
lineup after missing only one game but reinjured his foot two
games later against Mississippi. "Coach tells us not to feel
sorry for ourselves, but sometimes it's hard," says Wright, who
was listed as doubtful for games this week.
Of course, some troubles pale when compared with others. A few
days after Jacqueline's funeral in early November, Donovan spoke
to his players about his daughter for nearly 30 minutes. Donovan
assured them that the tragedy had not shaken his faith in God.
The strength he showed that day hasn't been forgotten. "We knew
he was devastated, but he was still telling us everything happens
for a reason," Hamilton says. "For a father to say that after
losing a child, he must really believe it. I know we believe in
For complete scores and recruiting news, plus more news from Seth
Davis and Grant Wahl, go to cnnsi.com/basketball/college.
WEEKLY SEED REPORT
It was a tough week for Iowa State. The Cyclones were in good
position to gain a No. 1 seed after Illinois lost to Ohio State,
but they lost 94-78 at Texas to remain No. 2 in the Midwest,
where a showdown would loom with Michigan State. Last year the
Spartans narrowly beat the Cyclones in the Midwest Regional
final, a game that many observers considered the best of the
North Carolina's loss to Virginia allowed Duke to move into the
top spot in the East. The Tar Heels were still able to hold on to
a No. 1 seed but are now in the South. St. Joe's debuts as a No.
4. (Don't laugh; did you know the Hawks were a fourth seed in
1. Duke (25-3)
2. Illinois (22-6)
3. Boston College (20-4)
4. Mississippi (22-5)
1. North Carolina (22-4)
2. Florida (20-5)
3. Arizona (19-7)
4. St. Joseph's (23-4)
1. Michigan State (22-3)
2. Iowa State (23-4)
3. UCLA (19-6)
4. Notre Dame (19-6)
1. Stanford (25-1)
2. Virginia (19-6)
3. Kentucky (18-8)
4. Kansas (21-5)
The Joe College Report
How cool is it that the guy leading cheers for Oregon's
boisterous Pit Crew at McArthur Court, the one wearing dorky
green suspenders and a spectacular red wig, is the Ducks' star
quarterback, Joey Harrington...
There's another formidable five in Lexington, Ky., besides Tubby
Smith's Wildcats: NAIA power Transylvania. The No. 1-ranked
Pioneers, 25-1 through Sunday, haven't played a game at home
this season. While their new gym is being constructed, they have
hosted games at seven colleges and high schools. Coach Don Lane
recently won his 500th game at Transylvania, and senior forward
Collier Mills is an NAIA player of the year candidate...
Hats off to the 150 members of Michigan State's Izzone (devotees
of coach Tom Izzo), who made the 16-hour round trip to last
week's game at Penn State. Once there, they took a cutout of
Nittany Lions football coach Joe Paterno and dressed him in an
Izzone T-shirt, making it appear as if JoePa was cheering for
A celebrity coach death match we'd love to see: Texas's Rick
Barnes versus Iowa State's Larry Eustachy, who argued
nose-to-nose over all the fouls that were being called on Iowa
State during the Longhorns' victory last week and seemed close
to coming to blows...
The most remarkable feat in No. 1 Stanford's 99-79 win over
Washington wasn't sophomore center Jason Collins's 33 points on
13-for-14 shooting. It was that the 7-foot Collins, who entered
the game with four three-pointers this season, went 4 for 5 from
beyond the arc.