The black uniforms were put away after UCLA came back from a disappointing trip to the Puerto Rico Shootout, where the Bruins lost to Maryland and Kentucky. No. 7 UCLA's recent eight-game winning streak didn't have as much to do with Steve Lavin's return to tradition as the return of sophomore point guard Baron Davis to the lineup.
Davis missed the first two weeks of the season while finishing the rehabilitation of his left knee, which he blew out making a thunderous dunk against Michigan in the second round of the NCAA tournament last season. It's fair to say that Davis missed being out there as much as his young teammates missed him.
"It was really tough," said Davis, who underwent surgery last spring to repair his torn anterior cruciate ligament. "But the young guys started to jell and find their niche when I was out. When I came back, I focused on finding my niche."
The team he returned to was a lot younger, but more balanced, than the one he left. It's the second-youngest Division I team in the country behind Southeastern Louisiana, featuring five freshmen and seven sophomores. There is also one other difference: Davis is clearly its leader.
It showed in Saturday's 82-75 victory over previously unbeaten Arizona at Pauley Pavilion. Playing a season-high 36 minutes, Davis finished with 20 points and six assists.
"He's playing the best basketball of his career," Lavin said. "I never wish an injury like that on anybody. But part of the reason for his maturity is tied to that injury, in the way you handle adversity when you come back. The knee has also slowed him down a little, and he's looking at the game from a different perspective."
The return of Davis and the development of a freshman class that has been compared to Michigan's Fab Five -- particularly Jerome Moiso, a 6-foot-10 forward from Guadeloupe -- has made the Bruins legitimate contenders with Stanford in the Pac-10 and perhaps a dark horse for a national championship come March.
"Every practice, every week, every game, we seem to take it to a new level," said sophomore guard Earl Watson.
Said Davis: "We're going to get 10 times better. We can get to the point where we can really shut teams down."
This weekend will be an interesting test for the Bruins. UCLA will visit Oregon on Saturday. The Bruins have not beaten the Ducks in Eugene in three years and have lost four of their past five there, including a defeat for the team that won the NCAA title in 1995.
An athletic department spokesman said Lavin plans to bring back the black uniforms for the Oregon game. Having Davis wearing one will certainly help.
College coaches have their methods for keeping first-year players away from the media. Georgetown's John Thompson doesn't allow his newcomers to be interviewed during the first semester. Temple's John Chaney extends that through the end of the regular season, which is why we haven't heard anything from former St. Frances star Mark Karcher.
Duquesne's Darelle Porter is adhering to the rules set forth by Pam Smith, the mother of freshman sensation Wayne Smith. Despite leading his team in scoring seven times this season and in rebounding the past six games, Smith is off-limits to the media until he fulfills one of mom's requirements: a 3.0 grade-point average.
"She kind of raised the bar a little," Porter said.
Wayne Smith reportedly just missed the mark. He has yet to declare his major, so here's a suggestion: communications.
Ranson sparks N.H.
Another former St. Frances player, Orlando Ranson, is having quite a senior year at New Hampshire College. Ranson, a 6-foot-2 guard, is leading the Division II school in points (15.3) and assists (4.0). He has scored at least 20 in five of his team's last seven games, including a season-high 29 against host Grand Canyon College in a tournament in Phoenix.
George Washington's Shawnta Rogers leads the Atlantic 10 in scoring (20.5) and assists (7.7), is second in steals (3.5) and third in free-throw percentage (.909). So how come the former Lake Clifton star isn't on the Wooden Award balloting for national Player of the Year honors when Maryland's Laron Profit is? Can it be another case of the 5-3 Rogers being overlooked? The Big East is making a big comeback. Its 9-8 record against nonconference teams ranked in the Top 25 was the best of any league in the country.
Pub Date: 1/08/99