Could It Be Up to the Freshmen?

Basketball columnist Kennedy Cosgrove delivers his first take on the basketball season as UCLA heads into possibly its most important game yet, at USC on Sunday. Even with Darren Collison playing such great basketball, could UCLA's success this season hinge on the freshmen?

Real games! Finally!

Yes, the Ambien coma that was UCLA basketball's December schedule- -- with its drab lineup of the Mercers, Louisiana Techs and Loyola Marymounts of the world -- was over. A bunch of wins, sure, and I enjoy the occasional no-drama blowout as much as the next overly worried fan, but enough was enough. And thankfully, January had arrived, which meant one thing: Pac-10 play.

This season, UCLA's conference schedule opened with a trip to the Oregon schools. First, there was Friday's obligatory cruise-control, 69-46 lapping of Oregon State in Corvallis. No surprise, because other than Beavers Coach Craig Robinson absolutely crushing Ben Howland in the In-Laws Department (no offense, Mrs. Howland), Oregon State just doesn't match up with UCLA, in any facet.

With that warm-up over, it was on to Eugene, where the University of Oregon's ancient, cramped and hostile Mac Court ("Cursing out opponents and their families since 1927!") awaited. It's always the toughest Pac-10 gym for visitors, never more notorious than in last year's epic comeback win by UCLA in Kevin Love's return to his home state -- a game remembered as much for the vicious and hateful treatment Duck fans rained on Love and his family members in attendance as it was for the scintillating play. That contest simply oozed drama, compelling storylines, and national attention.

One year later, not so much. No Love, for one thing. Oregon kind of stunk, for another. With a record under .500, home losses to Oakland, San Diego, and St. Mary's, and two nights earlier, a 20-point loss to USC... where was the Mac Court mojo?

But still, Oregon is Oregon, their student section is still rated R for Adult Language, and they still get up for UCLA. ("I wish for once we could show up here and not have the building so ready for us," said Howland.) Thus, Sunday's game would serve as the first real gauge of the Bruins progress since their close loss at Texas a month ago.

And with its 83-74 win, it appears that UCLA is in a pretty reasonable place.

But it's a bit of a strange place, at least for UCLA fans, because so far this season the Bruins are winning with offense, not defense. As the second half wore on, and UCLA kept surrendering basket after basket, and offensive rebound after offensive rebound, I kept doing double takes. Where was the D? The rebounding? This was a Howland team? It was like watching the characters from The Wire popping up in unexpected places. Wait, what's Marlo Stanfield doing on Heroes? Why is Stringer Bell in a Denzel Washington movie? Disconcerting.

But times change, teams change, and the new style proved effective enough, because every time Oregon scored a bucket down the stretch, UCLA's offense answered. And it must be said that this is now clearly Darren Collison's team. It wasn't just the numbers -- though 22 points, nine assists and only one turnover is a sick line for a point guard -- but it was the senior leadership, the calmness, and the knack for making big plays down the stretch that defined his performance.

The play of the game, for me, came with about three minutes left and the Bruins up nine. Oregon was desperately trying to hang in, tired but scrapping. The crowd was into it. And Collison had the ball for UCLA. He calmly let the shot clock run down to five seconds as he waited for a high screen. The game seemed to slow down for him, as he smoothly knifed through the space between the screener and the help defender -- it's hard to describe in print, but pretty to watch, and it's probably the most difficult thing for a ballhandler to consistently do. That space isn't always there, and even if it is, it's open only for a split second. But Collison timed it perfectly, glided through the lane, exploded over an Oregon big guy, was fouled, and made the layup. Bruins by 12. Mac Court quiet. Ballgame.

Well, kind of. Oregon had one last gasp in them, cutting it to eight points moments later, and forcing a turnover; but UCLA stole it right back, the ball ended up in Collison's hands again, and again he beat the shot clock, with a controlled and smooth jumper. Bruins up by 10 with two minutes left. Ballgame? "Daggerization!" yelled analyst Marques Johnson.

It was a nice moment for the senior, who in past seasons has been a crucial, integral player for UCLA, but never The Guy. No, that was Jordan Farmar, then Arron Afflalo, then Kevin Love.

But this year -- so far at least -- it's Collison. He proved it by scoring 11 of the Bruins' final 14 points. In fact, the last nine times he shot the ball, whether from the field or the foul line, it went in.

Contrast his clutchness with Oregon's diminutive lead guard, Tajuan Porter. Now, Porter is a player you have to respect, given that he's 5-foot-6 (maybe) and fearless, launching that twitter-quick rainbow jump shot whenever he feels like it. But after making a long trey with six minutes to play to pull Oregon to within four points, here's how his next few minutes went:

-- Missed three-pointer.
-- Missed three-pointer.
-- Turnover by charging foul (drawn by Collison).
-- Turnover.
-- Turnover.


Pretty much the polar opposite of Collison, who clearly has been playing the best ball of his career in the last couple of weeks. Take a look at his last four games: 30 assists vs. four turnovers, ten steals, and perhaps most importantly, looking focused and immersed in the moment.

And his shooting has moved into the realm of the downright silly. He has now made 40 consecutive free throws (nine of nine vs. Oregon), an all-time UCLA record, and not to bore you with numbers, but Collison's 97% on free throws, 57% on field goals, and 50% on three-pointers, is simply staggering.

Other topics of note:

-- Josh Shipp, previously shooting 20% on his three pointers for the season, shocked pretty much everyone by nailing five of six treys. His defenders will say "See?", his detractors will mutter something about blind squirrels finding nuts, and the Shipp debate amongst hardcore Bruin fans will continue. You can't say this guy doesn't make you pay attention, I'll give him that. Regardless, a timely shooting performance by Shipp.

-- Alfred Aboya continues to be a warrior inside, probably the most pleasant surprise of the season.

-- Freshman Jrue Holiday flashes great potential, is playing unselfish and winning ball... but is definitely still adjusting to the college game. It's not a knock on him; it's just that I kind of expected Holiday (the national high school player of the year last season) to start dominating, Kevin Love style, by this time. But take away hype and Love comparisons, and Holiday is having a really good season.

-- Another freshman, Drew Gordon, continues to look like a player: a live, springy athlete who's struck a really nice balance between being aggressive and playing within himself as Aboya's backup. The question that keeps coming up: how many more minutes will Gordon earn? And will Coach Howland start playing him alongside Aboya more and more? Something to watch.

And I'm going to agree with my buddy Weiss that, at this point, the continued development of Holiday and Gordon could prove to be the barometer of this team's fortunes. If they explode in February and March, the ceiling on the Bruins gets significantly higher. They're too athletic, too dynamic, not to play huge roles.

And speaking of playing a big role, and of being on a roll, it's Mike Roll. I've been a pretty staunch Roll defender the past couple years, and a long-running argument with a certain friend (cough, cough...Pete) recently ended with the following voice mail: "Dude... okay... you were right. Good call on Roll."

Roll's emergence started a few weeks ago when he hit four treys against Loyola Marymount -- and he's mostly stayed pretty unconscious since. In the last six games, Roll is hitting an ungodly 70% of his three pointers, 60% overall from the field, scoring 12.8 points per game, and for the first time in the redshirt junior's career, really, truly, unequivocally looked like he belonged out there, as a key guy on a top 10 team.

To round out the rotation: Nikola Dragovic hit three three-pointers of his own against the Ducks and played probably the best game of his career.

Jerime Anderson looks increasingly good in limited minutes backing up Collison.

Another talented freshman, Malcolm Lee, could make a significant impact, maybe soon, but he's missed the last few games with an injury (though should return Sunday). Lee gives Howland, first, another defensive option, perhaps the best defender among UCLA's freshmen. He's also shown some offensive talent, and you'd expect him to be even better by March.

And a disappointment: James Keefe, in general, has looked shockingly awkward and ineffective for much of the season. It's not so much the stats or lack thereof that is concerning. It just looks like the hard-won confidence Keefe was playing with at the end of last season, the instinctive defense, the hard screens, the blocked shots, the hustle points, etc... it's all just kind of gone. He bulked up over the off-season, which may not have done his game any favors, but it's more than a physical thing. If he were a hitter in baseball, he'd be swinging at pitches bouncing in front of the plate, guessing on every pitch, and just throwing his bat out there and hoping to make contact. Hopefully, he can come around.

But overall, it's been a nice stretch by UCLA (eight consecutive wins, mostly by gobbling up cupcakes), and a weekend that was a nice way to open their quest for a fourth-consecutive Pac-10 championship.

It this team hasn't yet captured anyone's imagination yet, at least it seems to be making strides.

How big are those strides? More answers await at USC this weekend.

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