Bruins Starting to Look Familiar

Basketball columnist Kennedy Cosgrove discusses the sweep in UCLA's first conference road trip last weekend, and how the team is starting to get that same look about it that it had the last two years on the way to two Final Fours...

Not to read too much into one January weekend of college basketball, but the recent roadie to the Bay Area did answer one crucial question that has swirled, uncertain, around this year's UCLA hoops team.

No, it wasn't: "When will Coach Howland finally unleash Alfred Aboya's perimeter game?" (Though Aboya did hit one of those No-no-no-no-no-Yes! three-pointers—my favorite moment of a pretty delectable weekend, even more than the Russell Westbrook You Tube Fest that broke out two days later against Cal.)

The real question: Were the Bruins, who had stumbled and coasted a fair amount this season, still the class of the Pac-10?

The early returns, after this Nor Cal hoops caucus, say yes.

Some other questions were answered: Yes, Howland's team can still impose its will on your team's, Mr. Opposing Coach, even on your home floor.

Yes, UCLA can integrate an elite post player, Kevin Love, into the offense and look like a balanced team for the first time in Howland's tenure.

And yes, the Bruins can shake off the injuries, the malaise of their weak non-conference schedule, even the potential distractions of NBA futures and early entry possibilities -- and can still play with the intensity, selflessness, and purpose that have marked their back-to-back Final Four runs.

It had to be a relief for Bruin fans, because frankly, it marked the first time this season (now 15 games in, by the way) that UCLA played up to its preseason hype.

Both the Stanford and Cal games were vintage UCLA wins, of the type that have become almost automatic under Howland. The Bruins come at you in waves, insistent on playing their style. They take things away, and don't leave you with much. And after you expend your energy and will in trying to keep up, UCLA pulls away down the stretch for another double-digit win.

Start with the Stanford game. I don't care how far removed the Mike Montgomery Era is, I will never feel too confident when the Bruins go into Maples Pavilion. Too many memories of too many beat-downs received the past two decades, on that horrible bouncing court, with a seemingly endless supply of plodding but burly Cardinal seniors beating up another soft UCLA Harrick or Lavin team. Even Howland's Bruins have suffered some Maples Meltdowns, with only a 1-3 record there in his four seasons.

Plus, it was Love's first conference game, against a Top 25 team, with future NBA lottery pick, 7-foot Brook Lopez (not to mention his twin, Robin).

But Love continued his special freshman campaign; he clearly outplayed both Lopezes, held Brook to 0 for 5 shooting in the first half and only 13 points on the game, and fouled out both brothers.

This game and this weekend showcased the things Love excels at, both flashy (scoring big baskets, making bullet outlet passes for easy dunks), and subtle (rebounding in traffic, free-throw shooting). But he also is truly exceptional at one heretofore-ignored skill: drawing fouls. The Lopez brothers are hardly his first victims; He fouled out two Michigan State post players and had four fouls on a third Spartan. The game before that, he fouled out Maryland's two post players, too. It's only 15 games in, but I'll say it: Love possesses the most outstanding ability to draw fouls that I can remember seeing in a recent college post player. Think that might have come in handy the past two years against Messrs Noah and Horford? Best not to think about it, I suppose.

But the Stanford win wasn't just Love. Westbrook continued to be simply brilliant, with 15 points on 6 of 7 shooting, and six assists with no turnovers.

And Josh Shipp played on of the finest offensive games of his career: 21 points, 3 assists, no turnovers, and multiple big three-pointers, including a late dagger to push the lead to 10 and effectively end the game.

And Aboya, as I mentioned, hit that giggle-inducing trey, and had seven points.

It was a big win, with far-reaching implications.

Cut to Cal.

Again, Love was matched against a potential NBA lottery pick, this time 6-11 DeVon Hardin. Well, at least Hardin didn't foul out. But he finished with only eight points and eight rebounds, as a senior, at home—while the freshman Love went for 19 and 14. Ouch.

Shipp was Shipp, becoming almost ruthlessly efficient at putting up points, especially in key situations. And there is a swagger to his game right now that I'm liking, quite honestly, because it's looking less like entitlement, and more like intense confidence.

Then there was Westbrook. Obviously, there was his ferocious dunk over Cal's Jamal Boykin, which was ESPN's Play of the Day, and even had the Cal bench players awestruck, open-mouthed, hands on heads.

But which Westbrook moment was more impressive? That nasty highlight reel flush, or minutes later when he converted a shocking alley-oop lay-up while getting fouled—his body almost past the backboard, reaching back, controlling the ball and flipping it in?

Think about this for a moment: UCLA is throwing alley oops to a 6-3 guard who currently is their backup point guard. Westbrook almost single-handedly makes the Bruins explosive (the one quality they haven't had in recent years) and, game by game, is making a national name for himself. It's gotten downright trendy for announcers to note that he is looking like the Bruins' best NBA prospect.

But the bottom line on the trip: UCLA played a lot more like the 2006 and 2007 Bruins, than the team that sleepwalked through a drab win over Michigan two weeks ago.

So, now UCLA is 14-1, ranked fifth nationally, with fourth-ranked Washington State coming to Pauley on Saturday. And the Bruins have been pretty reliable about statement games at home the past two years.

Yeah, this feels like familiar territory.


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