Pac-10 Preview: UCLA

Last season Ben Howland proved once again why he is one of the best young coaches in college basketball. After landing a superb recruiting class, Howland was able to leverage a single senior starter and a wealth of young talent into an NCAA tournament team. This season, his young talent is a year older and his bench deeper. However, in an improved Pac-10 conference, there's no certainty the final results will be better.

The Bruin faithful were treated to the introduction of three superb freshman players last season. The leader of this group was Jordan Farmar, a wise-beyond-his-years point guard who proved to be the team's most valuable player in his first season.

Somewhat reminiscent of Mike Bibby, Farmar looked more like a wily vet than a raw freshman. Possessing superb court sense and ball handling skills, Farmar also showed a deft touch from the outside. The result was a winning basketball team with Farmar taking home the Pac-10's Freshman of the Year award.

2005 - 2006 UCLA
No Name
Pos 
Ht
Wt
Class  Hometown
1 Jordan Farmar
6-2 
180 
Sophomore  Van Nuys, CA 
2 Darren Collison
6-0 
155 
Freshman  Rancho Cucamonga, CA 
3 Josh Shipp
6-5 
207 
Sophomore  Los Angeles, CA 
4 Arron Afflalo
6-5 
210 
Sophomore  Compton, CA 
5 DeAndre Robinson
6-5 
200 
Freshman  Riverside, CA 
10 Janou Rubin
6-3 
208 
Senior  Union City, CA 
11 Ryan Wright
6-8 
225 
Freshman  Mississauga, ON 
12 Alfred Aboya
6-8 
233 
Freshman    
14 Lorenzo Mata
6-8 
235 
Sophomore  Huntington Park, CA 
15 Ryan Hollins
7-0 
230 
Senior  Pasadena, CA 
20 Michael Roll
G-F 
6-5 
205 
Freshman  Aliso Viejo, CA 
21 Cedric Bozeman
6-6 
207 
Senior  Santa Ana, CA 
22 Kelvin Kim
5-10 
165 
Freshman  Lake Forest, CA 
23 Luc Richard Mbah a Moute
6-7 
224 
Freshman    
24 Joey Ellis
6-2 
180 
Freshman  Hidden Hills, CA 
45 Michael Fey
7-0 
279 
Senior  Olympia, WA 
55 Nican Robinson
5-10 
175 
Freshman  Oakland, CA 

"I thought we had the most productive freshman class in the country," Howland said.

Farmar is not a great athlete nor does he possess a physique reminiscent of Charles Atlas. As a result he is not a strong defender and has had a hard time staying healthy. That said, he can get into the lane seemingly at will and when teams back off from him, he rains threes.

His teammates trust him implicitly as he is the unquestioned team leader. "As good as Jordan was last year, he has improved immensely," says Howland. "He has improved his body in the weight room and with that experience of running team as a freshman, he should be our leader again this season. There shouldn't be as many ups and downs, either. He's ready to be a consistent player."

Farmar's backcourt running mate is no slouch either. Aaron Affalo returns for his sophomore season after earning a spot on the All Pac-10 Freshman Team. Affalo is built like a fullback and is a very good athlete whose perimeter shooting skills are improving. The best defender on the team, Affalo is also a strong rebounder who brings unselfishness and a toughness that had been missing from recent UCLA teams.

Affalo is not a great ball handler and he isn't yet the offensive dynamo that his classmate Farmar is - but he's not far away from becoming an All Pac-10 type player.

The third piece of a dynamic trio is Josh Shipp, the younger brother of Joe, the former Cal star. Shipp, like Affalo, possesses a strong body and likes to mix it up down low. Josh's real strength is in transition where he can finish with the best of them. He's got a decent touch from outside and plays with the same fearlessness that is the hallmark of this talented threesome.

Unfortunately for the Bruins, Shipp is out until at least January with a broken hip - but Howland is not without an answer. Former McDonald's All American Ced Bozeman returns for his senior season after sitting out last year to repair a torn ACL. Bozeman has great size for someone with his ball handling and passing skills and has used his time off to work on his Achilles heel, a suspect outside jumper. Bozeman is not a great run and jump athlete and lacks explosion - but his length makes him an above average defender. His experience and ball handling skills are likely to prove invaluable to the Bruins.

UCLA has brought in another strong recruiting class, among the haul are lightning quick point guard Darren Collison and an old-school shooting guard in Mike Roll. With Farmar battling injuries, Collison is certain to see a lot of minutes. He lacks the poise and presence of Jordan - not to mention the jump shot. The Bruins will not be nearly as effective offensively when he is in the game. Roll can shoot and has solid fundamentals but is not likely to be a big contributor as a freshman. Blessed with only adequate quickness and size, Roll will initially be a defensive liability.

"We have four starters back," says Howland, "and some good depth and competition for minutes, and two 7-footers. Our focal point on offense is more balance and a better perimeter attack. We want to push the ball even harder than last year. We want to hurt teams by just pushing the ball as much as possible.

"We couldn't do that as much last year because of depth. Our lack of depth really hurt us. We couldn't defend like we wanted; we couldn't extend the defensive pressure. We want to pressure every pass, every play."

Much like Oregon, the Bruins have plenty of firepower on the perimeter. The question is whether their frontcourt can match them. They have two athletic big men with size and experience in Mike Fey and Ryan Hollins. While both have had their moments, neither seems to possess the fire or toughness that marked Howland's Pittsburgh frontcourts.

Hollins is a legitimate 6-11 and is quick off his feet. He will block some shots and crash the offensive glass. What he doesn't have is a refined set of post moves nor is he an effective face-up shooter or ball handler. Fey has the big body at 6-10 and 260 lbs and he has stronger footwork. Yet, his defensive presence is atrocious for someone his size and more often than not he seems to disappear on offense.

Luc (Richard) Mbah a Moute will probably start at the power forward slot for UCLA. He brings a rebounding and defensive presence that is much needed by the Bruins. Only a freshman, Mbah a Moute, who descends from African royalty, has poise and maturity beyond his years. Not yet a threat offensively, he will still supply some of the intangibles that UCLA needs down low.

Alfred Aboya, Ryan Wright and Lorenzo Mata round out the front court. Aboya started the season on the sidelines battling injuries but has returned for conference play. He has good size and at the very least could ably back up Mbah a Moute.

Mata is a bit of an enigma. He has good athleticism and can be a real factor on the glass but is seemingly always in Howland's dog house. Wright was touted as the Bruins top recruit in 2005, but appears to be a better athlete than basketball player at this stage..

With four returning starters, and with Ced Bozeman back in the lineup, it's hard not to see UCLA as a serious contender for the Pac-10 crown. Still, the team is battling a host of injuries - most notably to Shipp and Farmar - and has yet to find an answer down low. They are also a young team with seven underclassmen in their top ten players.

What tempers the naysayer is that thus far in the season, UCLA has played superb defense and the tandem of Affalo and Farmar has been lethal offensively. Moreover, the Bruins have been successful on the road against some quality teams, which tells you the team has a level of mental toughness that will help as it enters Pac-10 play.

If UCLA can stay healthy and get some contribution from their post players, they will be very good. However, if the team becomes unbalanced offensively and its lack of depth and experience result in inconsistent play, the Bruins will fall back to the pack.

Predicted Finish: 3rd place


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