Basketball Season Preview, Part 1

UCLA loses three starters from last year's team that went to the NCAA championship game, and that could be personnel losses too hard to overcome. On the other hand, there is enough to make an argument that UCLA could be even better than it was a year ago...

It's phenomenal the difference a great season can do for a program.


Last  year, in the season preview, the primary theme was the fact it was the third year of Head Coach Ben Howland at UCLA, and that expectations were he should make "significant advances" in the program.


You could say he lived up to expectations and made significant advances when he took the 2005-2006 Bruins to the NCAA championship game.


Now that he reached a level of success, expectations are, in Howland's fourth year, that he maintain it. Most fans don't expect Howland to go back to the Final Four every year, but given the talent on the team year in and year out to live up to what are reasonable expectations given that talent.


This season, given the talent, probably the low end of the expectation spectrum would be a top-two finish in the Pac-10 and a Sweet 16. 


But we'll get into the predictions for the season in the second half of this season preview.


The difference between this time last year and now seem like a completely different universe. Now, we have seen UCLA's name back on the Final Four marquee, and there's still a little bit of a pinch-yourself feeling – that, after so many long years of suffering, UCLA is actually back among, conservatively, the top 10 programs in the country.  In Indianapolis a year ago, it was certainly a bit surreal to see "UCLA" plastered everywhere, and it's still so when you see UCLA on the cover of the pre-season magazines or ranked fifth or so in the pre-season polls.  Yeah, I know, you should act like you've been there before, but it's been a while.


Last year, for one thing, there was so much unknown about this team. At the beginning of practice last year, if you remember, Alfred Aboya was projected as the starting power forward, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute hadn't distinguished himself, it was uncertain who'd start at center, Mike Fey or Ryan Hollins, and UCLA was beset by many injuries that threw an even bigger blanket of unknown over the team.


This year there is so much more known, mostly since the five freshmen from a season ago are now sophomores and we know them. 


But even though we think we know them, it's still probably going to take a few weeks of watching this team to get to know the sophomores all over again. As many coaches say, including Howland, players make their biggest leap of improvement between their freshman and sophomore seasons, and you can probably expect the same from this year's UCLA's sophomores.  Plus, Josh Shipp returns after playing in only a few games last season, and in a limited capacity, due to hip surgery.   And then, you have the three new freshmen.


So, here's a rundown on the roster:




This isn't really going out on a limb: Arron Afflalo will be considered one of the best few shooting guards in the country by the end of the season.  Actually, most pre-season mags have predicted the same.


Afflalo had a very good sophomore season, where he scored 15.8 points per game and had to be one of the best on-ball defenders in the nation.


The thing about Afflalo, though, is that there still is some considerable room to improve. Afflalo shot just 36% from three in 2005-2006 and, having seen him shoot in the Say No League and in various pick-up games, his outside shot has improved considerably.  Afflalo, of course, worked dilligently on his game in the off-season, and his shot has become more fluid, softer, quicker and far more consistent. Afflalo has become one of those shooters that when he goes up for the shot you will assume it's going in.  And beyond just the shot, Afflalo has worked hard to improve his ability to take defenders off the dribble, eliminating much of the excess motion.  Watch for him to score more points between 15-8 feet this year, either pulling up in the lane or off a dribble or two,  or being posted up more against smaller, younger defenders. 


And there's Afflalo on defense. Watching him play defense is truly one of the best treats of the Howland era so far.  He's not greatly quick laterally, but he has very good instincts and plays with so much desire defensively that he's shut down just about every player he's faced in two years.


But perhaps the biggest element Afflalo brings to this team is his fire and competitiveness.  While Howland has done a remarkable job as UCLA's head coach in three seasons, most close to the program doubt he could have turned it around this fast and been this successful without Afflalo's competitiveness and leadership.  Many pundits last season thought this was Jordan Farmar's team and, nothing against the new Laker, but everyone close to the program knows Afflalo is the engine. Now, with Farmar gone, it truly is his team and you can expect him to take it personally. Even though he does have his eye on the NBA as his goal, Afflalo is too competitive not to want to push himself and this team as far as possible.  It's pretty given around the program that Afflalo will go pro after this season no matter what, but it's just not part of his nature not to try to compete as much as he can in whatever situation he's in.  After he decided to take his name out of last year's draft and return to UCLA, sources indicate that he was a bit depressed for a time. It must have been hard, setting a goal to go pro and then having to re-adjust that you'd be returning to college. But the word is that he got re-focused very quickly and worked very hard in the off-season. He's also been hanging around more with his teammates than he did before, taking the leadership role more seriously. 


Afflalo had a stress fracture in his foot at the beginning of the summer and wasn't cleared to play until October. He's also suffered a hamstring injury in practice so far.  It's believed he's physically fine, and pretty close to being back in physical shape. 


Josh Shipp is one of the biggest wildcards of the upcoming season, and has been one of the biggest enigmas of the last three years. Shipp is now a redshirt sophomore, having taken a redshirt year while he recovered from his hip injury and surgery last season.  He came back from the surgery and played in four games about mid-season last year but then stopped so he could still have time to redshirt. Before that, in the summer of 2005, when we saw Shipp play in the Say No League and summer pick-up games it looked like Shipp would be the best player on the team last season. He had slimmed down and his athleticism had improved, both getting up and laterally.  But then the injury and the recovery, and Shipp didn't look the same. When he did return for those four games he was out of shape and sluggish. He started practicing with the team toward the end of the season and didn't look much better physically. When we saw him at the UCLA Camp in late June he still looked out of shape and slow, and it was a question whether Shipp would ever get back into his 2005 summer shape.


Then, in the last month and a half, Shipp has definitely changed again physically. He has slimmed down again and looks very good. He says he isn't feeling any lingering effects from the hip and believes he's in as good shape as he was in summer '05.  It's been hard to gauge whether he is or not; it's obvious he's in quite a bit better shape than he was just a few months ago. 


Shipp, as a freshman, won a starting position because of his intelligence and craftiness on the court. He was the best perimeter rebounder on the team and got many loose balls and steals merely because of his nose for the ball.  His shot wasn't great – not horrible, but not great.  Even so, he averaged 9.3 points per game (along with 5.2 rebounds) in 2004-2005, and 11.3 in the four games of 2005.  Now, Shipp has improved his shot considerably. It's shortened up, with him able to get lift with stronger legs rather than having to wind up in his mechanics.  In the off-season he looked very good shooting the ball, very confident from three in particular. He also is more aggressive taking the ball to the basket, and will be good at drawing fouls and getting to the line.


Shipp has a little bit of a rep for not giving 100% at times, and he shows it quite often if you see him in pick-up games or at Say No.  Friends tell us, however, "Just wait until the games start, he'll play hard."  He's not a lock-down defender, like his predecessor at the position, Cedric Bozeman, was, so if Shipp is going to step in without a drop-off he'll have to definitely play hard. Shipp, while not a great natural defender, is smart, and brings craftiness to his defense.  It's thought, though, that while UCLA won't have the defense at the position it had with Bozeman a season ago, Shipp will make up for it with more scoring punch at the spot.


The word, too, is that Shipp very much has his eye on leaving for the NBA early, with the hopes of doing so after this season. We think that's not realistic, but there have been many unrealistic decisions made by college basketball players about leaving early for the NBA.  We think, though, ultimately, Shipp won't be ready after this season and return next year.  Hopefully it won't be a distraction for him this season.


How well Shipp does this year might be a big indicator as to how well the team does.  Shipp brings so much extra scoring capability to the floor, providing just one more outside shooter alone to help bust zones, something UCLA could have used during some scoring droughts last season. 


Along with Shipp, probably the player who will most determine UCLA's fate this season is sophomore point guard Darren Collison.  Collison, when he supplied the back-up point guard minutes last year behind Farmar, had some games where he looked very effective. Now, he takes over the reins of the team, and the question is whether he's ready. If you judged solely on what you saw last year, you might have your doubts. A season ago, he looked weak at times in certain aspects of his game, particularly his handle, decision-making and ability to get teammates involved.  But after seeing him numerous times in the off-season, it's not difficult to say that Collison will easily be considered the team's most improved player. The great quickness is still there, of course, but he's bigger and stronger.  He's sharing the ball better, playing more with a pass-first, true-point-guard mentality, while his own offense has improved. His shot is a bit shorter and more accurate from the outside and he's become very effective at hitting his pull-ups, rather than just always forcing it to the rack.  He'll be one of the most difficult players to guard that you'll see in college basketball this year, with defenders struggling to contain Collison's quickness.  Howland said that Collison could be the best on-ball defender he's ever coached, and that says it just about all right there if you're talking about his defense.


Probably the biggest unknown about Collison is whether he'll be able to handle the work load as the starting point guard. Last year he averaged 19 minutes per game, and he should see that increase to about 30. There will be the question of stamina, whether he can play full-out for 30 minutes like he did when he played 19, and whether the responsibility of running the team will take its toll on him. With the biggest question on this team probably being how it will fill the back-up point guard minutes, it's critical that Collison #1) stays healthy and #2) stays out of foul trouble, so he'll have to be very under-control defensively. 


Collison will be instrumental in UCLA running more this season, which Howland is intent on doing.  Again, nothing against Farmar, but pushing the ball up the court isn't exactly his forte. It's definitely Collison's.  Also, the addition of Shipp, who is probably UCLA's best wing guy in transition, will rev up UCLA's running game as well.


If you're talking about potentially a player leaving early for the pros, it might be Collison to worry about. It's not believed he'll be ready after this season, but Collison looked so good in workouts during the summer at the Adidas camp in front of pro scouts, and has impressed the coaches in practice enough that they're wary about him leaving after his junior year.  It would have been interesting to see if Farmar actually had returned to UCLA this season, just who might have ended up the better overall point guard by the end of the season. 


Mike Roll, the 6-4 sophomore shooting guard, will be another who will probably make a good-sized leap in improvement from his freshman year.  Probably the best outside shooter on the team a year ago (38% from three) his shot has continued to improve. He's also gotten stronger and lost some of the freshman baby fat, which has made it easier for him to get separation from a defender. He won't ever be a guy who takes defenders off the dribble consistently, but watch for him to take more shots than just threes (three-quarters of his shots were threes last year) since he's improved his ability to shake his defender enough to get room to pull up for 15 footers.  Roll was probably the best natural passer on the team last year, too, and his ability to create a bit more offensively will only allow him to create more for others also.


So far in practice, perhaps the most pleasant surprise, according to reports, has been the play of 6-3 freshman guard, Russell Westbrook. Westbrook signed with UCLA in spring, after waiting to see if the Bruins would have a scholarship for him.  He comes to UCLA without a great deal of coaching or knowledge of the game, but with probably the best athleticism on the team next to Collison.  He's a solid 190 pounds, has very good quickness and gets off the floor very quickly.  He had a good shot in high school, even though it was fairly undisciplined, seemingly going up with a different shooting stroke from shot to shot. He was primarily a two-guard in high school, but with athleticism and passing ability, UCLA took Westbrook with the hope that he could also play some point guard. Initially when the coaches saw him they weren't sure. He truly didn't know much about basketball, let alone about being a point guard. His skills were, as we said, raw, with his dribble high and a bit loose.  But since practice began, the coaches will readily tell you that Westbrook has won the back-up point guard minutes, which they thought they were going to have to give to Afflalo. First, Westbrook's ability to play defense got him in contention, and then his work ethic, really working hard to learn how to play point guard so he can get on the court, has impressed the coaches.  He has listened well in the first few weeks of practice, and hasn't tried to force things at the point, so that combination – good defense and not making too many mistakes – have given the coaches enough confidence in him to play back-up point guard.  And they say he's getting better at point guard by the practice.  He'll also give UCLA a smaller, quicker option at the two-guard this season.  His signing, which many argued about, is looking like a great move by Howland and co.  Westbrook has concussive symptoms and has missed the last three practices are so but is expected to be fine.


Walk-on freshman guard Mustafa Abdul-Hamid is probably the best walk-on to come into the program since Howland took over.  He has good size, about 6-1 or 6-2, is well-built, is fairly consistent shooting his outside set shot, and plays hard. He definitely adds depth in case of injury and provides the program some quality play in practice.




Luc Mbah a Moute is now a sophomore and there's a great deal of expectation for him coming into this season after being named Pac-10 Freshman of the Year last season. Mbah a Moute is bigger physically, more filled out and muscular. The general consensus on him is, if he ever got a consistent jumpshot, he'd be a lottery pick. Even though it's tough to judge from summer pick-up ball, it's probably safe to say that, in that case, Mbah a Moute is not a lottery pick just yet. His jump shot has improved, definitely, but it still has a ways to go. He'll be far better shooting open 8-to-15 footers, but the stroke still takes him some time to get off and it's still mechanical. If you're a UCLA fan, that might almost be good news because the lack of a jumpshot very well could be what keeps him in college. While he's still learning how to play basketball, every other aspect of Mbah a Moute's game is pretty naturally advanced. He has a great feel, is a great natural rebounder and passer, particularly in the post and with the post-feed.  He's the type of player that you don't really see how good he is in pick-up games, needing a more structure, real-basketball environment to show his talent.  At power forward he's a nightmare of a match-up for opponents, able to defend bigger post players while, offensively, with his quickness, creating a tough match-up for those bigger posts to defend. While last year UCLA didn't run too much offense through Mbah a Moute, with him averaging 9.1 points per game, watch for UCLA to look for him more often in the post and stepping out from the basket, to get him isolated against those bigger, slower defenders.  And you can probably expect him to lead the conference in rebounding, and improve upon last season's 8.2 per game. He could be the first player at UCLA in a long time to average a double-double for the season.  While Afflalo, Shipp and Collison might provide UCLA more of its flash, Mbah a Moute is the guy that really gives UCLA its consistent lunch-pail, inside production. Even though Farmar and Afflalo, and even Ryan Hollins were in the spotlight down the stretch last season, it's very clear that UCLA never would have achieved what it did without Mbah a Moute going way beyond expectation last season.


Lorenzo Mata, the 6-9 junior center, is out for another three weeks or so, recovering from athroscopic surgery on his knee.  It's a bit worrisome, since it's the same knee he had operated on back in early summer, but he then had some recurring pain this fall that required further surgery.  It will be interesting to see if he can 1) return in time for the Maui Invitational and 2) be at 100% for the tournament.  If he gets – and stays – healthy, Mata is a big piece to the puzzle this season. With no one over 6-9 on the team, Mata gets the assignment of matching up against any big bodies UCLA will face all season. In the championship game against Florida, while there were many reasons UCLA didn't match up well, one glaring mismatch was UCLA trying to defend an NBA-level big man like Joakim Noah. There aren't too many Noahs in college basketball, luckily, but there are a few and it could be the one personnel area where UCLA might not be able to match-up. Mata, however, will have a better chance this season than last, providing he's healthy. He's quite a bit bigger and stronger, and will be able to body up against big bodies better. He's also continued to develop offensively, with a far better low-post game that features little left- and right-handed jump hooks. His 15-foot-and-in jumper has improved also. He's always been a good rebounder and shot blocker and he should probably average 7+ rebounds with his added playing time as the starting center this season. Having to play starter's minutes, rather than the 14 per game he played last season, will present a potential problem of staying out of foul trouble for Mata, since he is still somewhat of a bull in a china shop at times. 


Alfred Aboya, the 6-8 sophomore post, has probably been the most consistent player in practice so far this fall. He rebounds and plays defense with the same high level of intensity for every minute he's on the floor. With Mata out of practice so far, Aboya has been stepping in and stepping up, showing really for the first time (since he was injured for a great deal of last season) what he can do when starting fall practice healthy. The coaches always knew he'd be a workhorse on the boards and defensively, but they've been particularly impressed with the development of his offensive game, showing improving footwork around the basket and touch. He, like Mata, has developed little jump hooks that are getting surprisingly consistent – surprising since he was, well, a bit of a bull-in-a-china-shop himself offensively last season. With Mata out with the knee, Aboya's play in practice has really made the coaches feel quite a bit more secure, knowing they have another 240-pound, tough, strong post player who can defend big opponents.  Aboya will start at the five until Mata's return, and it will be interesting to see if Mata immediately is given the starting spot back, especially if Aboya plays well in the exhibition games.


Ryan Wright, the 6-8 sophomore post, is probably the guy whose development is still a bit slow.  Having not had a great deal of coaching in high school, and probably not having a great natural feel, he's definitely been a project for UCLA. But he also has a great deal of potential, with a very live body, intelligence and a great work ethic. Wright, in fact, puts in a great deal of extra time working in the weight room and on the court.  When you see him for the first time this season you'll notice he's gotten bigger, especially in his shoulders and arms.  Wright didn't start out fall practice well, but then has come on recently. The coaches have tried to simplify things for Wright, and he's getting more comfortable and slowing down in the post and playing under control.  As of last week, he was the leading rebounder in practice, which is significant since he has Aboya and Mbah a Moute as competition.  It's also a significant improvement from last fall practice when some days he'd go with no rebounds.  So, there is some definite advances in his game. His rebounding and his defense are becoming solid, to the point where he'll be able to get on the court.  He'll definitely see a lot of time with Mata out, and you can still probably expect him to get 15-18 minutes once Mata returns.


James Keefe, the 6-8 freshman power forward, has really been coming on in practice as of late. He started out a bit slow, as you might expect from a freshman, but has really impressed the coaches in the last several practices.  He brings a great work ethic every time he steps on the court, and knows how to play, having gotten good coaching in practice and having a good natural feel. Also, having spent time being coached by Howland the last two years in UCLA's June camps has greatly helped, with Keefe knowing what Howland wants.  He's a good athlete for his size, not great, with decent lateral quickness, average hops and a bit stiff in his torso, but he's a very good positional rebounder, with a knack for getting to the ball.  His offense has continued to improve, already going from an okay shooter to, what we're hearing, is shooting fairly well in practice. He's been catching and shooting well out to the three-point line, and even making 50% of his threes so far in practice.  That ability, to be the face-up four, is an intergral part of Howland's offense, opening up space in the middle for the post, while also making bigger, slower opposing fours have to step out to guard you, and Keefe has the quickness to be able to go around them.  Keefe's minutes will probably be decided game to game by the opposing team's personnel, whether he'll be able, at 220 pounds to defend the opposition's four.  But he's going to see a good amount of time as a freshman, merely because he's dedicated to playing defense and rebounding, and then can pop out for that 15-footer. 


Nikola Dragovic, the 6-8 forward from Serbia, has had some mixed reviews since fall practice started. Expectations were much too high, with some Internet sites having projected him as a lottery pick. I guess they think, "Ah, a foreigner who's 6-8 and can shoot, lottery pick!" But it just doesn't work that way. Dragovic came into fall practice extremely raw, with very little basketball fundamentals. He had to even get in the practice of getting in a proper stance. So, he's at the very beginning of his basketball learning curve. But he also does have some material there to work with. He's a good athlete and he could be the team's best outside shooter already.  His shot is really pretty, and it goes in, a lot. After being in practice now for over two weeks, the word is that Dragovic has really improved in the last few practices, starting to pick up the fundamentals Howland is teaching and working and playing hard. That's extremely good news for the coaching staff, especially after reports of Dragovic in the summer pick-up games not exactly playing hard.  His shot has been excellent, with an unlimited range, and with the height that makes it hard to defend when he's launching 24-footers.  But what's been most encouraging lately has been, since he's been buying into Howland's teaching, Dragovic's athleticism around the basket has been really encouraging – rebounding, blocking shots, etc.  He's more of a four, since he could struggle guarding smaller threes (at the beginning of practice, Josh Shipp owned him), but the coaching staff thinks that with more development he'll eventually be able to guard threes, at least the slightly slower ones.  So, some of the best news out of practice recently was the change in attitude toward Dragovic – from a guy the coaches weren't sure was going to contribute, to someone they think will and bring a unique dimension to the team.


Offensively,  as we've heard repeated like a mantra, expect UCLA to try to run the ball more.  Howland's philosophy has always been to try to get as many easy points in transition as possible, but he didn't really have the personnel most conducive to doing it in his first three seasons. With Collison bringing up the ball, Shipp back on the wing, and athletes that run well like Westbrook, Keefe and Dragovic, he'll have more to utilize in his transition game.  But once they ball's been brought up and there isn't a transition bucket to be had, UCLA will again go back into its very structured offense. Expect UCLA to use the on-ball screen with Collison like it did with Farmar the last two seasons, and with Collison's quickness, for it to be even hard to defend. Collison will also be able to create easier baskets with his ability to get into the paint, for himself and his teammates.  And with shooters like Afflalo, Shipp, Roll and Dragovic lined up on the perimeter, watch for UCLA to be more of a penetrate-and-dish offense this year.  And believe it or not, UCLA will have its best low-post scoring since Howland's been here, with Mata, Aboya and Mbah a Moute having improved in their low-post scoring.  What many don't realize is that Howland's offense has always been geared to go inside-outside, but he just hasn't had the low-post scorer to make it work.  While Mata and Aboya aren't Elton Brand by any means, they'll probably surprise onlookers some this season with their improved ability to score from the low block, and UCLA's increased confidence in them to do it. So, the ball will go down low, but then also expect it to be kicked out to pick up those perimeter shooters. 


One aspect of the team that made it more effective last year down the stretch is the overall intelligence of the players on UCLA's roster.  The coaches, having come from other programs, said the one thing that they've particularly learned about college basketball since coming to UCLA is how smart players make such a difference. UCLA, because of its admission requirements, will generally have more intelligent players, and it's had an impact. Howland has said he was pleasantly surprised by how much offense UCLA players can understand and utilize.  Instead of knowing just 30-35 plays, by the end of last season UCLA was up to about 50.  A great example of the players' intelligence was last season when UCLA was playing Arizona, Mbah a Moute and Aboya both knew that Arizona's Mohamed Tangara spoke French, so they coyly gave each other false instructions in French so Tangara would be baited by it. Tangara left the post after hearing what the two Cameroonians said in French, and it resulted in an alley-oop thrown by Mbah a Moute and dunked by Aboya. 


Defensively, UCLA might not be as effective as it was a season ago, or it very well could be better. It loses a great on-ball defender in Cedric Bozeman, and you can't under-estimate the effect Ryan Hollins had in the paint down the stretch last season as a shot blocker and all-around good post defender.   But it does get an upgrade in defense at the point guard position in Collison. If there's one particular aspect of his game where Farmar was a liability sometimes it was his defense, as we all know. There were games when Farmar played hard defensively, and made up for not being a great natural defender, and there were other times when he was truly playing matador D. Some of those times UCLA's coaches were unsure about keeping Farmar on the court, knowing they needed him offensively but that he was a liability defensively.  That won't ever be an issue with Collison.  His defense this season will be something to marvel at, and it's easy to say that UCLA will have one of the few, if not the best, defensive backcourts in the country with Collison and Afflalo.  Then, coming off the bench at the point will be Westbrook, so opposing point guards won't get any rest.  So, while you might lose some defense at the three, you're gaining it at the one, which is far more important since the point guard, obviously, handles the ball far more than the small forward.  Inside, Hollins' presence will be missed, but UCLA will probably be more physical inside with Mata and Aboya. Aboya is playing defense really well in practice, and is said to be a big, physical nuisance, with power combined with quickness and great intensity.  He'll bring some versatility, too, many times being on the court with Mata, with Aboya matching up with the opposing four.  Then you have the great defense of Mbah a Moute, who is quick enough to guard threes and strong enough to guard fours.  It's pretty clear that defense will, again, be a staple of UCLA.

Then, there is the Howland factor. With UCLA's run to the championship game last season, he has become what many believe is one of the few best coaches in the college game. His philosophy of emphasizing defense and rebounding has proved to be very successful, especially in a college basketball environment that is getting away from defense and rebounding and moving more toward a fast-paced, run-up-and-down, one-on-one, no-defense type of style. In a sea of undisciplined teams with little fundamentals, Howland's team will almost always have an edge when they step on the court, and will always be even better than they look on paper. And then throw in the fact that Howland's teams play harder than most of their opponents, too, and you have a pretty winning formula in today's college basketball.

So, while UCLA might not reach the championship game again, it very well could be a better team than it was a year ago, given the personnel and especially the additional year of experience for its juniors and sophomores, and with Howland at the helm.


 Coming Next: An analysis of UCLA's schedule and its opponents...

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