Interview With Steve Lavin, Part 1

UCLA's head basketball coach Steve Lavin gives BRO a very candid interview about many subjects...

BRO had a chance to interview UCLA Men's Basketball Coach Steve Lavin. Lavin is now starting his 6th year as UCLA's head coach and has been a coach at the school since 1991. His career record as head coach at UCLA in his first five seasons is 114-47, a winning percentage of .708, against a "Strength of Schedule" lineup that has ranked in the top 10 in the country in four of Lavin's five seasons. During his five-year tenure, UCLA has been to the Elite 8 once and the Sweet 16 three times. In Pac-10 play, UCLA has won the Pac-10 title once, finished 3rd three times, and 4th once.

Added note: This interview actually took place over several days, and was mostly completed prior to the injuries to Cedric Bozeman, Matt Barnes and Dan Gadzuric and the decision by the coaching staff to move the team to a matchup zone defense and to pull back on the press. Rather than update it with "hindsight," we felt it would be more interesting to see what Lavin's thoughts were prior to the occurrence of these events.

Lavin: How do you want to start this?

BRO: We started the minute I walked into your office. I've been taking notes.

Lavin: Uh, oh.

BRO: Okay, let's call this the start. Let's talk about the offense.

Lavin: Basically, it's the "2 Game." That's our starting point. We're talking about the halfcourt (picking up an erasable pen, Lavin starts to diagram the offensive sets on a whiteboard over his desk), this is the basic formation we've used for the last two years…

BRO: But what does "2 Game" refer to?

Lavin: It's just a name, really. Ralph Miller used a 1-4 offense and Gary Colson decided to call it the "2 Game." Coach Saia worked under Gary Colson as an assistant coach at Fresno State, where they ran Ralph Miller's legendary offense. In addition to his recruiting responsibilities, Coach Saia has done a tremendous job of coordinating our offensive system the past three seasons. When I use that phrase, "2 Game," I mean our own version of the basic 1-4 set, which is this (illustrating on the whiteboard). From here, we can run these plays (illustrates about 10 different plays), you recognize this, this is how we beat Stanford at Maples two years ago, they were using Madsen to single cover Jerome, so we ran the "3" play (illustrates). We positioned Matt here and ran a flair screen for Earl off of that and a diagonal up-screen for Jerome which led to the isolation of Jerome inside, because Stanford chose not to double team the post with any of its perimeter players. Coach Miller's system is the basic foundation for our halfcourt offense.

BRO: My impression, from watching Michigan State the last few years, is that the 1-4 offense is a very hard offense to run well, but it's also very hard to defend, as compared to a motion…

Lavin: I'm not sure I agree. It all comes down to execution. In fact, a really well-run motion might actually be the hardest offense to defend. Every defense in the halfcourt tries to push the offense onto one side of the floor, cut off the angles of attack, reduce the field of vision. Whatever your defense is, that's the goal. So you want to vary the basic 1-4 set, you can see how the defense naturally starts to shift into the middle, here at the free throw line (illustrates on whiteboard), so this area in the middle of the free throw line will get congested, the defense, the offense, it gets pretty crowded right here. That's why we have what we call "early or false motion sets," we throw different looks at the defense at the start of the play to shift them into different positions or throw them off their ideal position. We use stacks down low, double stack here, put the posts down low on each side of the lane and simply have them cross positions, setting a screen for each other as they move, everything is designed to get the defensive players into motion so we can move back into our 1-4 and then initiate a play before the defense resumes pressure. Our offense depends a lot on good offensive spacing versus poor defensive spacing. We are looking for ways to distort the defense. Early movement or false motion allows your team to find an offensive flow or rhythm. As the season moves forward, we install more of those sets and our offense becomes more difficult to defend. At least, that's the plan.

BRO: A lot of UCLA fans will be surprised. You sound like a coach.

Lavin (erasing diagrams): Don't let it fool you. You've read the message boards. I don't know what I'm doing out there. I'm totally lost.

BRO: I interviewed Jim [Saia] and he said that you were going to use more elements from the motion offense and high post this year.

Lavin: We've always used a lot of high post plays. They still call it the "UCLA shuffle cut" off the high post. We've continued to use a lot of plays that Coach Wooden and Coach Crum developed. Also, Tex Winter's triple post offense (demonstrates plays from both systems on whiteboard), the defenses are so strong you have to stay flexible, and teach your players to read and react to changing defenses. The motion, that's what we used my first three years here, we had players like Toby Bailey and JR Henderson who could really break people down off the dribble or pull up for the short jumper, we had great athletes like Charles O'Bannon and Jelani McCoy, a great shooter in Kris Johnson, and Cameron Dollar was like having a coach on the floor. I was very confident that those players could read and react to a lot of different situations on the floor, read the defenses, see the weak points and attack. We didn't shoot the ball really well from the outside, except for Kris Johnson, but we had a lot of guys who could break down the defense off the dribble, post up. So even without jump shooters, we led the conference and the nation in field goal percentage each year, and that's because the motion offense opened up so many great shots for us. In addition, such movement offensively allows for better offensive rebounding. It's simply harder to box out a moving target versus a stationary target, so we got a lot of offensive rebounds in that system. A lot of what I call "zero footers," the put-backs. I think in our first two years we might have scored 50% of our baskets off the offensive glass, which accounted for our high field goal percentage.

BRO: But after the first three years, after your original cast and Baron Davis were gone, you decided to make a major shift in your offensive system…

Lavin: Well, of course. We had a different team, with different players. I mean, we've had terrific players, but we lacked some elements that we had when we won our championship, when we went to the Elite 8 my first year. Plus, the experience level went way down during that time, that's something you have to remember. We had 11 freshmen and sophomores my third season. Now, we've got a team that's very unusual these days in college at our level, the High D 1 level, in terms of having so many key guys who are seniors and a Jason Kapono who is a junior. So, the 1-4 just made a lot more sense for our personnel, but we think that we can open things up a little more this season, we'll really find out when the ballgames start. Theory and practice take you so far, but then you have to play the games to see what works and what isn't working, and each team, each year, has to find its own identity, its own style, and that again won't happen until we have some games under our belts, that is just part of the process of coaching and learning.

BRO: So now you see a motion and/or a high post possibly making more sense? Can you elaborate? What specific factors are going on with this year's team that have prompted you to make the changes? With a motion and high post, you will have to spend more time teaching screens in practice, right? That's a big change…

Lavin: The high post, the John Wooden offense, the screens are positional. A player sets a screen by going to a certain spot on the floor. It's up to the player using the pick to make the pick effective (illustrating on whiteboard again), he has to rub his defender off the pick, come close enough to close this gap or the screen isn't a screen at all. So, teaching effective screening techniques focuses on both the players setting the screens and those using them. In the motion offense, Bobby Knight basketball, you go head-hunting, you look for a body to lay a screen on, it's a much more physical brand of basketball. The players are always looking to set screens, use the screens, decide whether to shoot or drive or pass, trying to read to how the defense has reacted on each sequence, it's simply a more complex style of basketball. When you run it well, it is the most difficult brand of basketball to defend against. But, at the same time, it's a system that takes longer to teach. With the advent of players leaving early or transferring for more playing time elsewhere, it makes it more difficult to teach a system as intricate and complex as Knight's motion at a school like UCLA. If you look at what Coach Olson does at Arizona or what Coach K does at Duke, they have taken the motion and greatly simplified it. You see a lot more isolation plays, one on one situations. When you have players like Hill, Brand, Battier, Williams, Dunleavy, or Bibby, Simon, Dickerson, Gardner, Arenas, Jefferson, it doesn't make as much sense to pass the ball around five times through five sequences of screens like you had for Alford. Sometimes, you just give the ball to Jason Williams and everyone gets out of the way.

BRO: And, again, I ask the question: What's different about this team which maybe is leading you to at least consider going with at least more motion and high post sets than the last couple of seasons?

Lavin: Cedric Bozeman. He is our best playmaking point guard since Tyus Edney. Cameron could make plays, but his scoring ability was limited. In the motion, that wasn't so much of a problem, but in the high post it was. Baron was a great player. Earl was a great player. But both players were more skilled at scoring than creating plays for their teammates, making their teammates better. And the fast break is such a key weapon, it has to be a key part of your game if you want to win the National Championship. Look at Duke and Arizona, look at Kentucky, look at our '95 team. We broke down that team and figured that 1/3 of our offense came off the break, whether you are counting on baskets generated by defensive rebounds or by the defense off of turnovers. The last 3 years, with Baron and Earl, we are talking at maybe 10-15% of our offense off of breaks. It's funny, last year, we got to the NCAA Tournament, and I'm reading all these reports about how we're a running team, UCLA high-flying style, and I guess that was because of our fullcourt press. So everyone was wondering how we would do against Hofstra and Utah State when they slowed the ball down. How did we do? 8 minutes, no points [for Hofstra]. 13 minutes, no points [for Utah State]. At the other end, we kept grinding. Why? Because we are a grinding team, we are not a running team at all, hardly any of our offense comes out of transition, and for some reason nobody figured it out. I guess it was the look of the fullcourt press. Also, we would score in spurts off of turnovers caused by our press, 10-2 runs, 16-0 runs, so perhaps that gave people the impression that we were a running team. But, in truth, slowing the game down, that was our strength at the time, as far as our own offensive execution. It might be our strength this year, we will have to see how the freshmen impact that. I was talking about Cedric. He is a point guard who can read the play, see over the defense, make that pass, make the break happen. Cedric Bozeman does that better than any player I've ever recruited to UCLA, you really have to go back to Tyus to find a guy who did that as well. Cedric just has such a great innate feel for the game. I hear people say, "He's only a freshman," but that doesn't mean he's going to magically lose his feel for the game. He's a very special player, and we are going to look a lot different this year. He can definitely score and shoot, but he looks to really make plays when he penetrates. He's so poised, he doesn't play like a freshman, not at all.

BRO: Which is good news for Jason Kapono, Billy Knight and Matt Barnes.

Lavin: For everyone. Again, I'm not criticizing Earl or Baron, they were great players for us, but they were definitely more scoring point guards. Cedric is focused on opening up things for his teammates first. But Dijon is like that as well. And we will definitely run our offense through Jason and Matt a lot (drawing again with the diagrams), you will see these formations, with Jason getting the ball here, and we are saying to him, "You have these options, it's not just catch and shoot or pass it around again." We expect to see Jason and Matt do a lot in the halfcourt. We want at least 1/3 of our offense from the break, before the defense can set up. That's the difference between Sweet 16 and a top team, a team that can win a championship, that's what we've been missing and now we have it.

BRO: You didn't want to say this at the Media Day, when the press asked you, but does this mean you think you're going to win the Pac-10 and make the Final 4?

Lavin: I would be disappointed if we didn't win the Pac-10. We have the elements to compete for a National Championship. Yes, Cedric, Dijon and Andre are freshmen. Yes, we need to see if Dan is going to be a consistent double-double man. So, I can't make predictions. But I know what this team is capable of, and I know what I expect to happen. Didn't I say that at the press conference?

BRO: No, you threw out some vague stuff about how you don't pay attention to public expectations and how the team always has private expectations that always exceed public expectations, and how you always have the goal to win the Pac-10 every year and compete for the National Championship, and how that goal is more realistic in some years than others.

Lavin: That's pretty vague. Basically, I just try and stick to the basic fundamentals of success that run through athletic, education, business, all aspects of life, really. I know that bores the media, but it's true. The fundamentals of life and basketball often sound trite and corny, but these are the things that I learned from my parents and my mentors throughout life. These are the core values that I really believe in. You know" "Inch by inch, brick by brick, day by day." Loyalty, work ethic, trying to improve individually and collectively on a daily basis. These aren't just buzz words or phrases to me. They represent what we believe in here at UCLA, what we want the players to carry with them not only here, but throughout their lives. I say these same things to our players in practices. Maybe that makes me the most boring coach in America, I don't know.

Part 2 Coming Soon...

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