The UCLA Bruins entered last Saturday's big game against Iowa unbeaten, untied and unimpressive. True, the Bruins were the second-ranked team in the country, but they had struggled on the road and had started slowly before winning their only home game. They had gotten their ranking on talent and potential, but they seemed in danger of losing it to an undefeated and 10th-ranked Hawkeye team that had been much more assertive in its six victories.
But as it happened, the peril was illusory. After falling behind 4-0 at Pauley Pavilion, the Bruins got their superb fast break going and, for the first time this season, lived up to expectations, with a 75-66 victory. Or, to put it more succinctly, UCLA had a Fields Daye.
Scoring inside, outside and from the middle, forwards Kenny Fields, a 6'7" junior, and Darren Daye, a 6'8" senior, combined for 41 points and 20 rebounds. Their games are a mix of muscle and finesse: Fields has toned up his 225 pounds of baby fat since last season, while Daye has bench-pressed his weight from 185 pounds to 215 in the last two years. And they fill two lanes in what is sometimes a five-lane break on this Bruin track team.
That kind of versatility has lifted a huge burden off the considerable shoulders of sophomore Center Stuart Gray. By now everyone realizes that Gray isn't the seven-foot savior many thought he would be when he checked in last season, so his modest stats to date (8.0 points per game, 6.2 rebounds) don't look so bad when compared with Daye's (18.4 ppg, eight rebounds) and Fields's (16.4, nine). At least, they'll do as long as the Bruins are running.
On Saturday, Gray was only the second-best center on the floor. Iowa sophomore Greg Stokes had 27 points and nine rebounds, while Gray had four points and six rebounds in 22 minutes of play. UCLA Coach Larry Farmer often replaced Gray with a third guard (Michael Holton) or forward (Nigel Miguel).
Farmer has learned his lessons well after a grueling inaugural season that included NCAA probation for UCLA, an early slump and the inevitable pressure of walking in Wooden shoes. Farmer has now won 20 of his last 21 games, including five in a row this year. The defeat of Iowa was easily the season's most important and impressive.
Farmer would have people believe that he's not doing anything radically different from last season, when at one juncture UCLA lost an unprecedented three Pac-10 games in a row. (It once took John Wooden seven seasons to lose three conference games.) But Farmer's players say there is something different this year—namely, Farmer himself.
"You know, when we started out last season he wouldn't even let us dunk in practice," says senior Guard Rod Foster, who's averaging 14.6 points per game. "This year he doesn't care. Guys are having a ball." Gray, who'll never be mistaken for a ballet dancer, even performed a 180° stuff in UCLA's victory over Brigham Young in the opening game.
"I think Coach was a little uncertain about what he wanted to do last year," says junior Point Guard Ralph Jackson. "I think he took a little bit away from everybody's game. This year he's letting everybody play to their strength."
That strength is quickness. Foster is called the Rocket for good reason, and Jackson, Fields, Daye, Miguel and Holton get places in a hurry, too. "I haven't seen a quicker team," said Iowa Coach Lute Olson after the game, "and I don't want to."
Farmer spent much of last season defending a slower-paced offense, and now he finds himself uncomfortable with UCLA's new playground image. He argues that the Bruins are much more than a run-and-gun team, and he's certainly correct. But it was Farmer himself, on the first day of preseason practice, who decided that the Bruins would run, even after a made field goal. The sound of lip-smacking filled the gym. "You can't imagine how happy everyone was," says Holton. But the message is always: Run under control, pass under control, shoot under control. Jackson described the last-second finger roll he scored to beat Notre Dame 65-64 on Dec. 4 as "the kind of shot the coach doesn't want me to take." Farmer was a two-year starter under Wooden, and Wooden lessons die hard, if they die at all.
Foster found that out during a full-court scrimmage the Wednesday before the Iowa game. He had recovered a loose ball near midcourt and, without looking, flipped it over his shoulder to Daye, who took it down and jammed. Although it didn't appear to be a very risky pass, Farmer scowled and said to Foster, "Save that stuff for next year." Translation: This is UCLA, not the NBA.
Free-lancing got Foster in trouble with Farmer last season and helped keep Daye in a reserve role. Foster was taken from the starting lineup for 12 games, and Daye was the sixth man most of the year. "Both Darren and Rod had to learn more structure with our new system," says Farmer. "They were more used to the behind-the-back, over-the-head stuff than some of the other guys. We just wanted to get from Point A to Point B in a different way than they sometimes did."
Clearly, Daye has found the proper route. In fact, he has become the key to the set offense, in addition to being valuable on the break. This year Farmer has installed both Fields and Gray down low in a double post, though Fields has some freedom to come out higher. Daye, the small forward, can pop up anywhere, but Farmer likes to get the ball to him around the free-throw line, where he can shoot the jumper or drive (he has a 55.7 field-goal percentage) or penetrate and dish off (his 13 assists are second on the team to Jackson's 21). "Darren is such a great ball handler that he can basically do anything he wants to do," says Fields. "Last year he didn't get the chance. He was really disconnected. He wanted to start, and he let it bother him. Nothing's bothering him this year."
Farmer has a second option in his set offense when he removes Gray. He places both Fields and Daye down low and uses Miguel, a sophomore, or the seasoned Holton, a senior, at Daye's forward position. Then the point of emphasis of the offense switches to the low post rather than to Daye at the foul line. Of course, there's another option in the Bruin offense, one that has been around since 1979—Foster's jump shot from the wing. He was only five of 12 from the floor against Iowa, but his season percentage is still 62.0.
All these options combined to give UCLA a 36-22 lead over the Hawkeyes with 1:23 left in the first half. That kind of margin, and the 19-2 spurt that created it, would have broken many teams in Pauley, but Iowa is no ordinary team. True, the Hawkeyes lack depth (in keeping with a season-long trend, all five starters played at least 34 minutes against UCLA) and have a reputation for folding in the stretch (as they did last year, when they lost six of their last nine games). But they have two talented and energetic inside men in Stokes and Michael Payne and two steady and experienced wingmen in Bob Hansen and Mark Gannon. Had they gotten better play from normally reliable Guard Steve Carfino (three for 11 from the floor), they could have beaten the Bruins.
As it was, they battled back relentlessly in the second half behind Stokes, who drove around Gray at will for layups and follow shots and scored 17 points in the final 20 minutes. It was Hansen who made a jumper with 23 seconds left to put the Hawkeyes within three points, 69-66. They got the ball back seconds later when Stokes stole Foster's errant pass. But Stokes was whistled for a charge with 17 seconds left, and it proved to be a tad costly for the Hawkeyes. They lost possession, the foul was Stokes's fifth, and Iowa Coach Lute Olson was called for a technical when he protested too vehemently. Foster sank both technicals to make it 71-66, and UCLA even scored four more points. Thus the misleading nine-point margin. Except for that, the call didn't hurt Iowa at all.
Though the Bruins handled the Hawkeyes, they're still waiting to put together 40 minutes of strong basketball. UCLA will improve further only when it brings its inconsistent control game up to the level of its devastating running game. The Bruins clearly must get a little more from Gray in the set offense. Though Fields says, "When you're seven feet tall, you deserve the ball just for being seven feet tall," it hasn't always worked out that way. Too often ignored by his teammates, Gray is averaging only 5.4 shots a game. Nevertheless, with the NCAA sanctions that kept them out of postseason play behind them, the Bruins have renewed enthusiasm.
"The guys who've been there talk about the Final Four all the time," says Foster. "We want to get the young guys keyed up about it. And we don't want to forget how it felt ourselves. Not for a minute."
While Daye (30) stayed low, Fields went sky high for one of his 13 rebounds against Iowa.