2006-2007 UCLA Bruins
Team Personality: This may be the toughest team in college basketball. The Bruins aren’t tough in the “I’m going to beat you up,” sense, but rather tough in the way that your father showed you by going about his work, never complaining and carrying a confident (though not cocky) air of “I can whup you if I need to.”
UCLA is an extension of their coach, Ben Howland. Howland preaches solid man-to-man defense in the “old school” mold. He hates zone defense and, as a result, his players do, too. The Bruins have proven that they can beat teams that run, like Arizona and Georgia Tech, teams that play great defense like Texas A&M and Washington State, and teams that like to slow it down like Arizona State and Washington State, again.
The Bruins aren’t spectacular; they just beat you. They are efficient and they know their roles. UCLA has shown that you don’t need to be the Detroit Pistons of the Bad Boys era to show what toughness means.
Conference Tournament Chances: The Bruins have to be the favorite to win the Pac-10 title simply because they can beat anyone in the conference regardless of the style they bring to the floor. The one hope that other Pac-10 teams have is that the Bruins will be tired by the time they, (whoever “they” is), play them.
The tournament draw, however, was very kind to the Bruins. UCLA won’t say it but they would rather have steered clear of having to play Stanford, Arizona State, and Washington State as long as possible. These teams represent the toughest match ups for the Bruins. As it sits now, UCLA will only have to play one of them to win the conference title.
Running teams, like Oregon and Arizona, generally don’t match up well with the Bruins, and assuming UCLA gets past the California/Oregon State winner, they would then play the winner of the game between the Ducks and the Wildcats.
There is one small ray of hope for the other teams in the conference; if the Bruins simply play disinterested basketball as they did in their last loss at Washington and in their first loss at Oregon. Losing to the Huskies may have ended any idea, though, that the Bruins won’t be focused.
Oh yeah, one more thing. The Pac-10 Tournament takes place in Los Angeles, where the Bruins are 18-0 this year with close games coming against USC (the “other” L.A. team), Washington State, and Texas A&M.
Has to be on the Floor: Honestly, when he’s on, is there a better point guard in the country that Darren Collison? Now of course, he can be off, like he was in the Washington loss, but when he’s on, UCLA’s offense is virtually unstoppable.
Collison can shoot from the outside where he leads the Bruins in three-point percentage, he is super-quick and can get in the lane where he is equally adept at getting to the rack, pulling up for a jumper or finding an open teammate for an open lay-up or dunk.
How important is Collison? The Bruins lost four games; at Oregon, at Stanford, at West Virginia and at Washington. He didn’t play the West Virginia game, he might as well not have played the Washington game, and he had a horrible second half against Stanford when the Bruins blew a 12 point halftime lead.
There is a case to be made here for Arron Afflalo, but he’s played in every game so there’s no knowing how the Bruins would play without him. One could guess, but the Bruins have played without Collison and the results speak for themselves.
Crunchtime Crutch: This one is easy. Is there a player in the country this season outside of Acie Law IV who has hit more clutch shots than Afflalo?
The Bruin junior has hit game winners against USC, Washington State in Los Angeles and single-handedly carried the Bruins in Maui against Kentucky when it looked like the Bruins were about to blow a big lead. Afflalo is clearly the leader of this team. He is one of the best on-the-ball defenders in the country but he is also vocal on defense. He helps his teammates to rotate sooner and properly.
If the Bruins are a team built on toughness, then Afflalo is the epitome of that ideal. The impact of Afflalo is tremendous; even if the Bruins don’t win the title this season and Afflalo goes pro, there is a very good chance that UCLA will win at least one in the next five years.
If that happens, a decade or so from now when people look back on Howland’s tenure in Westwood they will equate Afflalo’s influence on bringing the program back to prominence with Lew Alcindor’s arrival in Westwood in the late 1960’s.
Impact Newcomer: James Keefe was the McDonald’s All-American, but late bloomer Russell Westbrook is certainly the top freshman for the Bruins. He can spell both Collison and Afflalo as he has very good instincts and plays very good on-the-ball defense. He is one of the better shooters UCLA has, and they’re a good outside shooting team, and he is even better than Collison at creating his own shot, because his release is much quicker than Collison’s. He is certainly the most gifted offensive player the Bruins have coming of the bench. One of the Bruin assistant coaches said of Westbrook several weeks ago that he will surely be playing in the NBA someday.
Potential Pitfall: There are teams that the Bruins don’t match up well with. They are teams with size and athleticism and will play defense close to the same level as the Bruins. Teams like Florida (when they’re on), North Carolina, Kansas, and Ohio State. Counting the Bruins, those are five of the top six teams in the country. Last season the Bruins were always susceptible to teams that matched them in defensive focus because UCLA’s offense was pretty one-dimensional. This year that’s certainly not the case, with Afflalo, Collison, Josh Shipp, and recently, junior post player Lorenzo Mata.
The biggest pitfall for the Bruins this year has been themselves. This team, at least up until this point, has played certain games with a lack of focus which was uncharacteristic of last year’s squad. However, last year’s team had two very significant seniors while this year’s UCLA team has none. UCLA is good, but not good enough to just “show up.”
How to Reach the Sweet 16: UCLA is assured of a #1 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament so really, they only have to win one game to get to the Sweet 16. Slowdown teams like Air Force could give the Bruins trouble, but if UCLA shows focus, they should make the Sweet 16 without a problem. The real question should be; what are UCLA’s chances of getting to the Final Four in Atlanta? Again, if the Bruins focus, they should at least get to the Elite 8, where a meeting with one of the teams mentioned above could be their undoing.
For what it’s worth, a team that moves the ball quickly and can spread it around while also playing solid defense will give UCLA problems; a team like Duke. But against a Duke or a UNLV or a Nevada, etc., that’s where UCLA’s toughness should come in, and none of those teams have the talent to offset the toughness the Bruins quietly and confidently display.