Before we get to the midseason analysis, though, we have one quick thought on the Arizona game. The turning point in the game wasn't any of the Bruin turnovers, or Frye's quick start, or the UCLA missed open shots to start the second half. The turning point for this game came back in November when Cedric Bozeman suffered his injury. Put Bozeman, with his length, experience and lateral quickness, on Stoudamire and we don't see the Arizona senior guard scoring 32 points. This is not a knock on Arron Afflalo, Brian Morrison, Jordan Farmar or Josh Shipp as defenders – it's just a statement of fact. Cedric Bozeman was, by far, the best perimeter defender UCLA had and his absence was huge yesterday. Arizona didn't have any other consistent weapons to go to and if UCLA could have slowed down Stoudamire – he scored 24 of Arizona's final 29 points – the Bruins win the game.
Prior to the season (after Bozeman's injury), we thought UCLA would win somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 games. While the Bruins obviously had some talented young players, we thought their inexperience and lack of frontcourt depth, along with major question marks in the areas of rebounding and defense, would make an NCAA tournament berth unlikely. Even in an era of young players getting major minutes right away, you don't see many teams with three freshmen starters making the tournament. The questions about the defense and rebounding seemed legitimate, as none of the returning frontcourt players had ever showed the ability to consistently rebound and defend. Dijon Thompson had a well-deserved reputation of being "soft," while Mike Fey and Ryan Hollins didn't seem to understand that 7-footers are expected to grab the occasional rebound. Lorenzo Mata, while certainly willing to mix it up inside, was very raw and he had spent his high school career going against a league full of 6-1 centers.
The Bruins started the season with some victories, but they were relatively unimpressive and most of our concerns still appeared legitimate. The freshmen were making a lot of mistakes, the defense was sporadic and rebounding was a major concern. Farmar had nine turnovers in a game. Pepperdine shot 51% from the field against the Bruins. UC Irvine and Long Beach State, two Big West teams, came into Pauley and out-rebounded the Bruins.
The key point of the season so far, in our opinion, came when UCLA lost three of five games to Boston College, Michigan St. and Oregon St. A lot of young teams might have gone into the tank at that point. It's very easy to start pointing fingers, tuning out the coaches or looking for individual stats. It's a credit to the staff, and this group of players, that none of those things happened.
After the Oregon St. loss, the Bruins rebounded with their best effort of the season at Oregon. Since that game, UCLA has looked like a different team than the group we saw earlier in the season. The freshmen have grown more confident, Brian Morrison has once again turned into a potential offensive weapon and the three-headed center rotation of Fey, Hollins and Mata has been more productive.
We thought Farmar, Afflalo and Shipp would have some measure of success this year, but each of them has surpassed our expectations to date. After initially being somewhat tentative, Farmar had a breakout game against Pepperdine and several stretches since where he's basically carried the team. Given the fact that he was 17 years-old when the season started, and he was playing the toughest position in the game, with seemingly the weight of the program on his shoulders – and no backup point guard on the roster -- Farmar has been remarkable. Afflalo, meanwhile, is third on the team in scoring, while being asked to defend the best wing on the other team. And Shipp has greatly exceeded our initial expectations with his solid all-around play, nose for the ball and clutch shooting.
But the biggest surprise of the season so far has been the play of Dijon Thompson. After playing with sporadic focus and intensity for three years, Thompson has finally seen the light click on. Once an indifferent defender and poor rebounder, Thompson is now excelling in both areas. He's much more active defensively – coming up with some key steals lately – and he's been remarkable on the boards. Thompson has always had the ability to score, but now he's scoring in big moments, rather than getting twenty when the team is down by thirty. He'll still take the occasional bad shot, but his shot selection is much improved. If you had told us prior to the season that Thompson would be a potential POY candidate in the Pac-10, we would have more than a little skeptical. But halfway through the season, Thompson is easily among the top candidates for that honor.
With a record of 10-4, the Bruins seem certain to exceed our initial expectation of 15 wins. While the Pac-10 can be tough to predict – witness ASU's sweep of the Bay Area, then a home loss to USC – we think UCLA has played a good chunk of their potentially toughest games in the conference. The games at Oregon, home to Washington and at the Arizona schools were, on paper, four of the toughest games of the year. The Bruins went 3-1 in those games. As of today, UCLA has only two more games against the apparent best teams in the league – at Washington and home to Arizona.
Clearly, anyone can beat anyone in the Pac-10 on a given night and we're not saying the Bruins will breeze through the rest of their schedule. We fully expect them to lose several more games in the second half of the year. But if they can take care of most of the teams they should beat – especially at Pauley – the Bruins are in great position to make the NCAA tournament. They're currently at #11 in the RPI, the Pac-10 is ranked #1 among conferences in the RPI and UCLA only plays one more non-conference game at Notre Dame. With seven of their last 13 games at home, the Bruins would appear to have a great chance at getting at least 17 wins heading into the Pac-10 tournament. If they can get to that seemingly attainable total, then one more win in the Pac-10 tournament, in conjunction with their high RPI ranking, would probably assure them of an NCAA tournament bid.
The great thing for the Bruins is that, even while they're growing, learning and making mistakes, they're still finding ways to win. Usually when you go through this process, you have to pay for it with more losses than wins. What is exciting is that they're getting some wins now and they have a chance to be even better by the end of the year.
We came into this season with somewhat modest expectations, believing that the best moments for the Bruins would be two to three years from now. That's probably still the case – the potential Final Four teams are likely still down the road. But this team now has a real chance to make the tournament and, as we've seen in the past, anything can happen once you get in the tournament.