Coming into this season, only the most optimistic fans would have expected the Bruins to be 11-0 at this point and ranked number one in the country. With three starters departing (two of whom have already played significant minutes in the NBA), this year's UCLA squad had several question marks at the start of the year. Darren Collison had never started a game at point guard, Josh Shipp missed almost the entire season last year and Lorenzo Mata started this year with what seemed like the thirty ninth injury of his Bruin career.
Mata's knee problem, though, has been the only injury to date and that's a big reason why this year's team has exceeded expectations to date. Last year's injuries may have ultimately helped develop the bench, but they also kept the team from reaching its potential until late in the season. This year, the same players have been on the court together for every game and there is a cohesiveness – particularly at the offensive end – that was missing at this point last year.
If you had to single out one player that has been the biggest key to the early success, it would probably be Darren Collison. Point guards play a very important role in the college game and Collison's play has been huge so far this year. His assist/turnover ratio is nearly 2/1, he's the best three-point shooter among the starters at 45% and he's shooting an outstanding 59% from the field. He's also averaging a team-best 2.7 steals a game, while playing terrific on-the-ball defense night in and night out. But Collison's value goes beyond the numbers he's putting up. His decision-making was something of question mark coming into the season, but he's been very solid so far and his feel for the position of point guard is much better than it was a year ago.
Arron Afflalo and Josh Shipp are the two leading scorers and their numbers are very similar. Afflalo averages 16 a game, while shooting 47% from the field and 38% on threes. Shipp is averaging 15 points a game, while shooting the same percentages from the field and beyond the stripe. The big difference between the two is at the defensive end of the court. Afflalo routinely defends the best wing or guard on the opposing team and usually does a good job. Shipp's defense has been adequate for the most part, but it is an area he could improve upon. Afflalo's weakness so far has been his rebounding. In Ben Howland's system, the shooting guard is required to get back in transition defense and he's not allowed to go to the offensive boards. As a consequence, Afflalo's rebounding numbers are going to suffer a bit. But he should still be getting more than 1.6 a game.
While Afflalo and Shipp obviously have room for improvement, they've both been critical to UCLA's success so far. Afflalo sets the tone for the Bruins with his defense. It will be interesting to see if the Bruins can maintain their defensive approach when Afflalo is no longer in the program. His leadership and willingness to buy in to Howland's defensive approach is a big reason why UCLA is number one in the country. And, as he showed last year, Afflalo is a guy who wants to take the big shots in tight games. Coach Howland called Afflalo the heart and soul of the team recently and that's a good description of what Afflalo brings to the program.
Shipp's role was a bit uncertain after he missed most of last year with his hip injury. But he's been very good in most of the games this year. Last year's team would struggle sometimes on offense, but the points have come easier this year, as Shipp gives the Bruins another good perimeter threat. He also has a knack for scoring around the basket, consistently being in the right place to get loose balls or easy putbacks off rebounds. Shipp is also a good passer. When he looks to get others involved, the Bruin offense flows much better.
Luc Richard Mbah A Moute has had a few moments where he hasn't been quite as active as last year but, overall, he's been terrific. The leading rebounder on the team, Luc is also an excellent defender and he's becoming more of an offensive weapon. His outside shot has improved, but it will be a very significant development for the UCLA offense when Luc gets a little more consistent. At that point, defenders will have play him more honest on the perimeter and he'll have more opportunities to shot fake and get to the basket. And Luc getting to the basket is important – he's by far the best finisher on the team. He's got great instincts around the basket and he has an uncanny feel for when to pump fake and when to go up for a shot.
The Bruins' big four of Collison, Luc, Afflalo and Shipp are each averaging around thirty minutes a game. They, along with Mata, Roll and Aboya, are getting the majority of the minutes and the cohesiveness I mentioned earlier is partly a by-product of the minutes being limited to a primary seven guys. Russell Westbrook, Ryan Wright and James Keefe are each getting some minutes, but it's clear that those three guys do not yet have the confidence of Coach Howland.
In order for the Bruins to reach their ultimate potential, however, I believe it is important that Keefe and Westbrook see more court time. Keefe is the best perimeter shooter among the Bruin post players and he has upside that Wright simply doesn't possess. Wright might (or might not) be a little better low-post defender at this time, but Keefe offers a much higher upside. While Ryan is thicker and stronger than Keefe, James has much better instincts, very good hands and the potential to give the Bruins some badly needed scoring punch from the frontcourt.
Westbrook needs more time because he has the potential to be a difference-maker. Not just a player who can give you a few minutes a half, but rather a guy who might win a game for you in March. Collison had that kind of impact last year and Westbrook has that type of potential as well. He gives the Bruins the kind of athleticism on the perimeter that they're sorely in need of and he's one of the few guys on the team capable of creating his own offense. Yes, he'll have some growing pains and make some frustrating mistakes. But if you don't develop him now, you may have a game in March where Collison turns an ankle and there is no adequate backup at the point.
The Bruins have exceeded expectations to date, with an undefeated record and a number one ranking in the polls. But the really good news is they haven't yet reached their potential. Their accomplishments so far are the result of fairly good shooting, good defense, decent rebounding and limiting their turnovers. The Bruins get a lot of attention for their defense, but they're not yet consistently defending at the same level they did for the last 6-8 weeks of the season last year. They've had spurts where they defended at that level, but they can still kick it up a notch.
At the offensive end, they're better than they were a year ago, but still have room for improvement. Last year, they didn't have a low-post threat until Hollins came on during the late run. Mata has a pretty decent jump hook – with either hand – and he needs to be given more opportunities by his teammates. Lorenzo has a chance to become a serviceable threat in the post. Right now, Mike Roll is the only player who consistently feeds the post. Everyone knows about Roll's shooting prowess, but his passing is an underrated component of his game. He is by far the best post-entry passer on the team. Both Afflalo and Shipp could take a lesson from Roll when it comes to playing within themselves and looking to make their teammates better. While Afflalo and Shipp have assist/turnover ratios of 1.3/1 and 1.2/1 respectively, Roll comes in at 2.2/1.
This brings up an issue that I believe is one of the most important factors facing the Bruins as they attempt to win the Pac-10 and advance in the tournament. This team will only go as far as Afflalo and Shipp allow it to go. Notice that I didn't say as far as Arron and Josh take them. Because, in my opinion, it's not up to Afflalo and Shipp to carry this team. They're not the kind of players that should be looking to carry a team. Not only are they not those kind of players, but they get into trouble when they start believing they're capable of taking over on offense.
Both Afflalo and Shipp have turned the ball over, or taken bad shots, when they've tried to create for themselves and get to the basket. They don't have the athleticism, quickness or ball-handling ability to take high major wings off the dribble and get to the rim. Mike Roll has 13 assists, and only six turnovers, because he understands his limitations. Shipp and Afflalo have only slightly more assists than turnovers because they don't always recognize their limitations. On Saturday, Shipp had an early charge when he came barreling into the lane with nowhere to go. Afflalo later had a shot blocked when he drove the baseline and tried to shoot over a 6-9 guy.
Great teams are made up of players who understand their roles. Both Shipp and Afflalo have important roles as scorers (among other things) for the Bruins. However, they need to understand that their scoring must come within the framework of the offense. When they try to operate outside of that framework, they either turn it over or take a bad shot. Or they end up holding the ball for too long looking to make a play for themselves and the offense bogs down. With guys like Luc, Collison and Roll – as well as Mata in the post – it isn't necessary for the two leading scorers to force the action. Roll has done a great job of not only feeding the post, but hitting Shipp and Afflalo in rhythm when they come off picks. Both Arron and Josh need to return the favor and do the same thing for their teammates. Please note that I believe Shipp and Afflalo have both played very well this year and these criticisms are far outweighed by their significant contributions. But if the two leading scorers play unselfishly, then the rest of the team will follow their lead. And both Josh and Arron have made several nice passes to open teammates off drives this year. The UCLA offense functions much better when those two guys create shots for their teammates.
Also, I'm not saying Shipp and Afflalo should only be catch-and-shoot guys. Both players have solid mid-range games and they can be effective with one or two dribbles and a pull-up. It's the out of control forays into the lane and on the baseline, as well as holding the ball for too long, that they need to watch. Also, Afflalo might be the best low-post scoring option on the team right now. He showed it against Michigan and I'd like to see him with his back to the basket in that 8-10 foot range more often. He's too strong for most college shooting guards and he's also a very good foul shooter. Shipp is also very crafty and getting him opportunities in the low-post might be a good idea.
The Bruins have won 23 of their last 24 games because they come closer to executing their coach's vision, on a game by game (and possession by possession) basis, than just about any team in the country. Yes, they have talent. But a lot of teams have talent. When commentators say the Bruins are "well-coached," that's what they mean. It's a team that knows what it wants to do, at both ends of the court, and executes the game plan. The Bruins take good shots, take care of the ball and don't take plays off on the defensive end. For those reasons, among others, they will win a lot of games. They'll no doubt lose some games, but you'll have to beat them. They won't beat themselves too often.
As many people have already noted, the Pac-10 might be the best conference in the country this year. I think Arizona State and Oregon State are the two weak teams in the league, but everyone else is capable of beating anyone in the league on a given night. I think the Bruins are the class of the league, but that doesn't mean they're a lock to win it. There's a lot of talent in the Pac-10 and any road victories will be hard-fought and tough to come by.
However, it's a measure of the strength of this UCLA team that I can't think of a team that would be a "bad matchup" for the Bruins. Usually, you see a team or two where you might say to yourself, "they don't match up well with them." But this year, I don't see that team facing the Bruins. I think UCLA is that team for a number of other teams in the league (the Bruins are a nightmare match-up for Arizona, in my opinion). I haven't seen Oregon play yet, but I've seen the rest of the league and UCLA is the best team I've seen to date.
As far as the rest of the country goes, I've seen three teams that I believe could end up better than UCLA by the end of the year. I'm not saying they will, but Florida, Ohio State and North Carolina all have the talent, size and athleticism to be exceptional by March. Or course, there's no guarantee UCLA will continue to improve and reach its own potential. But, assuming everyone gets better and is peaking in March, those three teams would be the ones I'd least like to see in UCLA's NCAA tournament bracket.
Hopefully, the Bruins will have a #1 seed in the west and those teams will only be potential Final Four opponents.