#1 - UCLA

UCLA is the class of the conference until proven otherwise. The Bruins are coming off consecutive Pac-10 titles and final fours and virtually everything about this team oozes national title contender.

They return four starters (all upperclassmen) including Darren Collison, who is getting hyped in some circles as the best point guard in the country. They are bringing in arguably the No. 1 recruit in the nation at their position of greatest need in Kevin Love, a position where their lack of offensive talent has proven to be a major factor in their undoing at the hands of the Florida Gators in the last two consecutive NCAA tournaments. Not taking into account coaching or any other factors, they have the talent, experience, and depth to finish in the top-two of any conference in the nation.

All of that is wonderful, but individual talent is not what powers the UCLA engine. In fact there are probably three or four teams with comparable or better talent than UCLA top to bottom (UNC, Kansas, Memphis, and maybe Louisville).

The X Factor that makes UCLA special is Ben Howland - a man who was born to coach the Bruins and works at his craft with the fervor, attention to detail and brilliance of a mad scientist. Howland's tireless work ethic and ability to get his players to understand exactly what he demands has created a team that will not be out-hustled, will not be intimidated, plays within the system and most of all does not beat itself. Combine that formula for success with Howland's most experienced and talented team to date, and it's understandable why people are talking national title in Westwood.

The Bruins are talented, they are experienced and they are very well coached, but there are two noticeable, although not necessarily serious chinks in the armor:
1) The more concerning of the two is the Bruins' lack of backcourt depth. The Bruins are realistically only two-deep at point guard and three-deep at shooting guard. Furthermore, two of the shooting guards are really natural 3's (Josh Shipp and Chace Stanback). If Collison goes down with an injury the Bruins will be forced to count on Russell Westbrook, who showed flashes of solid point guard play last season, but is really better suited at the 2.

The loss of UCLA's offensive engine and most disruptive defender for any significant amount of time would likely put a serious dent in UCLA's conference title hopes. Fortunately Westbrook is also an excellent defender and while there are still questions about his ability to run the offense, he made significant progress throughout last season despite averaging only 9.0 minutes per contest.

The shooting guard spot is a bit deeper with Shipp likely sliding over from the 3 and Westbrook again being the primary backup along with Mike Roll. However, it will be difficult to keep Westbrook's talent on the bench and he will probably be starting at shooting guard with Shipp moving back to his more natural 3 position by midseason. Either way, Shipp should have a highly productive season. A solid but not amazing athlete, Shipp has the ability to finish with authority and finish strong in the lane. He is a very instinctual rebounder as well, using his athleticism and anticipation to snatch boards from bigger players. He isn't terribly quick, but he is a very crafty offensive player and can get his shot off and create space with a variety of fakes and some clever ball handling at times. He is also an outstanding passer and has the ability to set up others on offense - as evidenced by his 92 assists and 1.5 A/TO ratio. Generally speaking, he has good all-around offensive feel. Shipp isn't a great outside shooter at only 31% last season, but he is very good from inside the arc and can put the ball in the hoop in a variety of ways, shooting 47% from the field. Shipp isn't the defensive stopper that Arron Afflalo was, but he is very good at anticipating passes and disrupting lanes. He does play solid position defense when he focuses. Thus far in practice Shipp has looked healthy and spry despite not yet being completely healed from off-season hip surgery, and his shooting has been more consistent. If early reports are any indication he should be 100% by the season and ready to have a breakout year in Afflalo's stead.

On the plus side, although there are issues with depth at point guard, the overall depth of the roster is excellent - with UCLA having the ability to go three-deep with quality players at every other position. It is a testament to their versatility, boasting no fewer than seven players capable of playing multiple positions effectively.

2) The second apparent chink in the armor is the loss of Afflalo. There is no doubt he will be missed. Very few teams can truly replace the loss of a 1st Team All American, especially a warrior and leader like Afflalo. However, while Afflalo was an outstanding defender, a great shooter, and an excellent decision-maker, he was not without limitations. He lacked athleticism and quickness and had trouble creating his own shot. No one expects Westbrook to replace Afflalo, but one area in which he is certainly superior is upside. He is quicker and more athletic and is already a great defender in his own right. Certainly it remains to be seen what kind of production Westbrook will bring to the table with significantly increased playing time, but remember that this time last year there was skepticism about how UCLA's athletic but raw sophomore Collison would fare as a replacement for All Pac-10 Point and first round pick Jordan Farmar. Everyone in the country knows how that turned out.

More importantly, remember these words - even in the highly likely event that Westbrook is unable to replace Afflalo's production, UCLA's offense will be more fluid, more balanced and will score more points. The reason? Kevin Love. Love immediately provides a significant offensive threat from the 4/5 position. He is a true back-to-the-basket scorer with a variety of moves from five feet and in. He also has a fantastic jumper from midrange all the way out to 3-point territory.

So UCLA's increase in offensive production from the front court will almost certainly make up for any losses sustained in the downgrade from Afflalo to Westbrook. What's more, by all accounts Love brings an almost preternatural feel for the game. His passing ability and decision-making - combined with the fact that defenses will have to honor him as an offensive threat - even doubling him at times - will open driving lanes and jump shots on the perimeter. It would not be at all surprising for Love to average in the range of 3.5 to possibly even 4.0 assists per game.

Last season UCLA had to work very hard at times to get open perimeter shots and often had to throw up contested threes late in the shot clock because they had almost no consistent offensive threats at the 4/5 spots. Also, because Lorenzo Mata was such a terrible free throw shooter and only a serviceable offensive threat, the Bruins offense tended to become even more perimeter-oriented late in games. With Love in the fold, the last place opponents want to be is down to the Bruins and in foul trouble late in the game.

UCLA is never going to be a run and gun team under Howland, but expect to see more fast breaks and more open shots early in the clock for this year's iteration.

Another somewhat overlooked factor for the Bruins is that Luc Richard Mbah a Moute should take the step forward this season that everyone expected last year. Mbah a Moute was good last year, continuing to be a rebounding force and playing his typical lock-down defense, but his production in both areas, in addition to his offensive game, was hindered by nagging knee issues that plagued him all year. By all accounts he is completely healthy this year, but knee issues can be very persistent. At this point it's a waiting game. Either way 'The Prince' will be productive; how productive will depend at least partially on his health. Mbah a Moute spent a significant amount of time breaking down and then reconstructing his jump shot this offseason. By all accounts the new and more compact stroke he is using is also more consistent. Assuming the veracity of those reports and add to it his usual outstanding interior passing ability and superior ball handling skills relative to most power forwards, and Mbah a Moute is ready to take his game to the next level. If he is indeed healthy all year, expect to see an improved Mbah a Moute.

One possible wildcard for UCLA at the small or power forward slot is little used 6-foot-8 forward Nikola Dragovic. Dragovic joined the Bruins last season after being one of the most promising Serbian players in the Under-20 group. Dragovic has parking lot-range on his shot and is a good athlete, but he has not yet learned to play defense the way Howland demands and it remains to be seen whether he has the quickness to consistently guard small forwards or the size to consistently guard power forwards. Dragovic should have a much better shot of playing significant minutes this year though mostly because he will be eligible the entire season. Last year Dragovic was suspended by the NCAA for 10 games before his career even got started - not because he had personally done anything to compromise his eligibility but because another player with whom he had played 10 games had taken financial benefits, unbeknownst to Dragovic. A somewhat pedantic and esoteric NCAA rule required that Dragovic be deemed a professional player for those games. There is no doubt that he was forced to play catch up all season as a result. If Dragovic can improve his defense this year, he could force his way into quality minutes thanks to his ability to stretch the defense and provide instant offense off the bench. It doesn't hurt his cause that James Keefe will be missing time until December due to a bum shoulder.

In addition, look for UCLA's tough front court quartet of Love, Mata, Mbah a Moute and Alfred Aboya to make life miserable for opposing front courts with their strength, athleticism and physical play. That foursome should also make for one of the best rebounding front courts in the nation, improving an aspect of the team that was good last year but not great. Playing UCLA is going to be a painful experience for a lot of teams - both literally and in terms of the outcome.

Mata is a known quantity at this point. He is a very strong and sufficiently athletic to play the center position effectively; a combination that makes him extremely difficult to move around in the post. He can hold his own defensively against virtually any post in the country. He is the definition of a team player and always goes 100 percent. He will never be a great scorer, but has improved his offense every season of his UCLA career. He has a fairly reliable jump hook with either hand and can knock down uncontested jump shots in the 10-15 foot range. He is also a good rebounder who does a very good job establishing position and sealing his man. His biggest flaw is his free throw shooting, which was atrocious last season - although he did improve significantly by season's end and it appeared to be more of a mental/confidence issue than a mechanical one.

Backing up Mata and Love is Mbah a Moute's fellow Cameroonian Aboya. Aboya plays the game with reckless abandon and childlike exuberance. He is an outstanding athlete but is not very skilled. He is very quick for a 6-foot-8 player and has impressive leaping ability. The best example of that probably came in the 2006 National Title game when, for lack of a better term, he 'teabagged' Florida's Joakim Noah on an alley-oop dunk off an in bounds play under the UCLA hoop. Sure the game was out of hand in favor of the Gators at that point, but as a display of pure athleticism it was very impressive. Aboya is a poor jump shooter and a mediocre free throw shooter, but a fantastic defender and a very good rebounder (4.2 RPG in only 17 minutes). He isn't going to provide much more offense than putbacks, layups on cuts to the hoop and the occasional open jumpshot from 10 feet or so. He brings instant energy off the bench and plays extremely aggressively often with painful results for opponents. That's not to say that Aboya is out there trying to injure people because he certainly is not, but rather that he is tough, plays like a madman and relishes contact. Opponents are on notice: when you play against Alfred Aboya it would be wise to have the post-game ice buckets ready to go.

Bottom line - UCLA is one of three or four legitimate national title favorites and is the most balanced and complete team in the Pac-10, but the conference should be so tough that even if they win it as expected, they may have 'only' a 14-4 record to show for their efforts. Like other Pac-10 teams, UCLA has question marks, but with two notable differences; 1) UCLA has far fewer, and 2) Even if UCLA fails to answer those question marks, they will still compete for the conference crown, but possibly fail late in the year and finish 2nd or 3rd. But on the flipside, if Westbrook takes a step forward and fulfills his considerable potential, Kevin Love lives up to his lofty billing, and the Bruins' moderate lack of backcourt depth doesn't bite them, they are going to steamroll their way to a third consecutive final four at minimum.


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