From jobs in jeopardy to security of Sweet 16

Coaches: Slow starts by Tubby Smith's Kentucky Wildcats and Steve Lavin's UCLA Bruins quickly brought up Rick Pitino's name at both schools, but turnarounds have quieted their doubters.

NCAA Tournament

March 20, 2001|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

After their teams had each played eight games this season, Tubby Smith of Kentucky and Steve Lavin of UCLA began hearing the whispers. Eventually, they grew louder in Lexington and in Los Angeles, shouting the same name as a potential successor to both embattled coaches.

Rick Pitino will not likely wind up going to either school, in part because he could decide to take the offer being made to him from Louisville this week or wait to talk with Michigan. But, there is also another reason why Smith and Lavin will remain in their current jobs, if they wish.

Both have led their teams to the Sweet 16 round of this year's NCAA tournament.

Smith's Wildcats, the second seed in the East Regional, will take on sixth-seeded Southern California on Thursday night at the First Union Center in Philadelphia before Lavin's Bruins, the fourth seed, play top-seeded Duke. The winners will meet Saturday for the right to go to the Final Four in Minneapolis.

Neither the postseason success of their teams nor the questions surrounding their job security are new to either coach.

UCLA, which started this season 4-4 and lost at home to Cal State-Northridge, will be playing in its fourth Sweet 16 game in Lavin's five years. Kentucky, which began 3-5 against a tough schedule with a young team, has gone this far in the tournament three times in Smith's four years.

"This team has had to do more and overcome more than any team I've ever been associated with," Smith said.

It began with junior center Jules Camara being suspended by the school last fall after he was charged with driving under the influence. It didn't help that the Wildcats began the season by losing to St. John's and UCLA in the Coaches vs. Cancer tournament in New York, the first 0-2 start for a Kentucky team in 25 years.

Smith, who, after replacing Pitino in 1997, led the Wildcats to the national championship in his first season, became a target for the often-insatiable fans at Rupp Arena. Some of their hostility was also directed at Smith's son, Saul, the team's starting point guard.

"Saul has had four remarkable years," said the elder Smith, who, along with his son, took heat last season when Kentucky lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament to Syracuse. "I couldn't ask more of him as a dad and as a coach from a player."

While the younger Smith has quietly contributed to the team's winning 14 of its past 16 games, it has been the play of forward Tayshaun Prince that has made the biggest impact. Prince, who had shown flashes of stardom during his first two seasons, has lifted his game to another level and taken the Wildcats with him.

In his team's 92-79 victory over Iowa in the second round Saturday, Prince finished with a career-high 31 points on 9-for-14 shooting, including six three-pointers.

"People just don't take over as a leader," Tubby Smith said of Prince, a skinny, 6-foot-9 junior. "It's a process. Tayshaun worked harder this year. He's always had the skill level. The way you earn the leadership role is to do it in practice every day."

While the rumors of Pitino's returning to Kentucky eventually subsided in Lexington when the Wildcats turned their season around, they didn't stop in Westwood until Lavin's team gave Stanford its first loss in early February. But they resurfaced recently when the Bruins finished the Pacific-10 season by losing at Washington.

Though athletic director Peter Dalis gave Lavin a vote of confidence after admittedly talking with Pitino, there was a feeling in Greensboro, N.C., last week that the Bruins could put their coach under further scrutiny had they lost to either Hofstra or Utah State.

"All the adversity we've been through just makes us stronger as a team," said reserve point guard Ryan Bailey, whose brother, Toby, helped the Bruins to their last national championship, in 1995. "Coach Lavin never brought any of it up until we asked him. He told us, `I'm your coach.' "

The controversy around Lavin has been a constant, considering that he inherited the job after Jim Harrick was fired in fall 1996 over a discrepancy in his expense accounts. It reached Lavin when the Bruins were beaten in the opening round two years ago by Detroit-Mercy.

Lavin, 36, has been accused of running a loose ship, and his benching of starters Jason Kapono and Matt Barnes for the first five minutes of the Utah State game was thought by some to be a statement of a new, more disciplined regime.

Asked if he or his team were ever distracted this season, Lavin said: "I would if that didn't happen here for the past 10 years. It's par for the course that the drama is going to be played out at UCLA."

The Bruins and Wildcats are talented enough to make it to this year's Final Four, though UCLA will have to get through the top-ranked Blue Devils first and Kentucky will have to silence USC after the Trojans upset third-seeded Boston College in the second round at Uniondale, N.Y.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.