It's good to be the king.
UCLA coach Jim Harrick won the national championship and then
saw the world, cashing in on personal appearances in such
far-flung places as Portugal and Japan. Sophomore forward Kris
Johnson has been hanging out with Queen Latifah ever since she
sent keglike quantities of Dom Perignon to a postchampionship
team party. Likewise, sophomore guard Toby Bailey has been
befriended by Snoop Doggy Dogg, a Bruin fan so rabid he has
mounted a powder-blue-and-gold backboard in his yard. Freshman
guard Brandon Loyd stepped off the plane from his home in Tulsa
and was whisked straight to the Warner Brothers studio lot to
play in a pickup game with Michael Jordan. And then there was
that impromptu autograph session in Westwood last spring that
got so out of hand that police had to extricate Bailey and
junior point guard Cameron Dollar.
"We were like rock stars," Dollar says.
"We loved it."
Maybe, but proclamations like that have Harrick feeling uneasy
about wearing the crown. "We need to refind our focus," he says.
Since the original UCLA dynasty ended two decades ago, only Duke
in 1991 and 1992 has waded through the colossal distractions to
win back-to-back national championships. And those Blue Devils
had a rock-solid group of veterans and some very spicy
leadership. This UCLA team has lost its heart (point guard Tyus
Edney) and its soul (forward Ed O'Bannon), not to mention its
sharp elbows (underrated center George Zidek).
"We need some of our guys to step up and be leaders and
prime-time players, not just role players," says Harrick.
Junior forward Charles O'Bannon (13.6 ppg, 6.1 rpg) is able, but
is he ready and willing? "I've always had the confidence to be
the go-to guy," he says. "The last two years I've just been
waiting my turn. I know I need to have a big year. It's my
time." It seems O'Bannon is keen on proving he can flourish
without his big brother chaperoning him.
O'Bannon is not the only one with extra motivation. Take Dollar;
he wants to show that his sensational play in the championship
game was no fluke. "People come up to me and they're, like, 'Oh,
yeah, you're good now,'" Dollar says. "It's funny to me. I've
been working my whole life to get here." With his feisty
on-court temperament and defensive tenacity, Dollar figures to
emerge as the Bruins' emotional leader. If there are questions
about how smoothly he will run the offense, Harrick has the
answer. He is already talking about Dollar leading the nation in
Super sophs Bailey (10.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg) and J.R. Henderson (9.2
ppg, 4.2 rpg) will also have to improve. "Last year they were
free and loose, and played without any pressure," Harrick says.
"If they didn't do the job, I sat 'em down and we didn't skip a
beat. If they don't come to play this year, whoooeeee...."
Bailey (page 70) will be the key in the half-court offense and
could double his point production. The 6'9" Henderson has added
15 pounds of muscle to reach 230 pounds and will get more action
in the blocks, where he is most comfortable.
It's fortunate that Henderson likes life in the low post,
because the team does not have a veteran big man. Junior Ike
Nwankwo is a 6'11" physical specimen with the most experience,
but he averaged only five minutes a game; skinny 6'10" sophomore
omm'A Givens has the tools, but his game needs to mature; and
6'10" freshman Jelani McCoy is a big-time shot blocker with a
lot of 'tude but a raw offensive game.
The 6'5" Johnson, the son of former UCLA and NBA star Marques
Johnson, is the Bruins' X-factor. He's looking to develop a new
identity. "People come up to me all the time and go, 'Hey,
you're the fat guy who waved the towel on the sideline,'" he
says sheepishly. Strong play last preseason earned Johnson a
spot in the rotation, but a stress fracture in his left leg last
November caused him to miss a month and balloon to 267 pounds.
He was reduced to cheerleading duty after that. Now he's down to
216, gliding to the basket with ease, and still a relentless
presence down low. "Kris is knockin' on the door," Dollar says,
"and the guys can hear it."
With Johnson pushing the perimeter players for time and with the
ferocious battle for minutes among the centers, complacency
doesn't figure to be a problem. O'Bannon says, "In pickup games
this summer there was a bunch of pushin', a lot of talkin' and
yellin' and dunkin' on each other. We lost our three best
players, and all of us know we got a lot to prove. We can't wait
to start proving it."
And the Bruins aren't quite ready to relinquish the good life
that comes with being champions. This year's Final Four is at
the Meadowlands, the very same place that New Jersey Net Ed
O'Bannon calls home. "Ed said when we make the Final Four, the
party's on him," Charles reports. "Sounds good to us."
COLOR PHOTO: AL BELLO/ALLSPORT USA With big brother gone, O'Bannon will be flying solo. [Charles O'Bannon]
THE DATA BOX
Coach: Jim Harrick
Career record: 335-152 (16 seasons)
Record at UCLA: 168-55 (7 seasons)
1994-95 record: 31-2 (final ranking: first)
Pac-10 record: 16-2 (first)
SF *Charles O'Bannon, 6'6", jr.
Fourth in Pac-10 in FG% and blocks
PF J.R. Henderson, 6'9", soph.
Played every position in '94-95
C Ike Nwankwo, 6'11", jr.
57.1% from the floor, 53.8% from the line
SG *Toby Bailey, 6'5", soph.
Member All-Final Four team
PG Cameron Dollar, 6'1", jr.
Can he replace Edney's 6.5 assists per game?
Dec. 2 at Kansas
Defending champs vs. next champs?
Jan. 11 vs. Stanford
Nine wins in a row against Cardinal
Jan. 13 vs. California
Bears handed UCLA only home loss last season
Jan. 27 vs. Louisville
Denny Crum has never beaten Bruins in Pauley
Feb. 25 at Duke
Became No. 1 after pounding Duke last February
NEWCOMER TO WATCH
Here are two things to know about Jelani McCoy, the 6'10"
17-year-old who just may wind up as the starting center on the
defending national champs: 1) He's a great shot blocker, and 2)
he'll tell you he's a great shot blocker.
As a senior at St. Augustine High in San Diego, McCoy averaged
8.1 blocks per game (along with 25.8 points and 16.0 rebounds).
"I'd rather block a shot than do anything else on the court,"
McCoy told the Daily Bruin.
McCoy's bombast won't make him a lot of friends, but he has
already impressed one person. "He will give us a defensive
presence that we've been missing," says UCLA coach Jim Harrick.
"His timing is uncanny." Indeed, with last year's center, George
Zidek, gone to the Charlotte Hornets, McCoy arrived just in time.