2007 NCAA Final Four Preview: UCLA Bruins

by David Mihm | March 26th, 2007

Starting Five:

G – Darren Collison (12.8 ppg, 5.7 apg, 2.3 spg)
G – Arron Afflalo (16.9 ppg, 2.0 apg)
G/F – Josh Shipp (13.1 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 2.6 apg)
F – Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (8.3 ppg, 7.5 rpg)
C – Lorenzo Mata (6.7 ppg, 5.5 rpg)

Key Bench Players:
Alfred Aboya (4.2 rpg), Michael Roll (36% three-point percentage), Russell Westbrook

How They Got Here:
First Round – Defeated Weber State 70-42 in a laugher.
Second Round – Held off Indiana 54-49 after nearly blowing a 13-point second-half lead.
Sweet 16 – Beat Pittsburgh in nearly all facets of the game, 64-55.
Elite 8 – Surprised Kansas with their quickness and hot shooting, 68-55.

2007 Changes:
After Jordan Farmar left for the Lakers, pundits immediately pointed to Darren Collison as the X-factor for UCLA. I was one of few who predicted he’d actually be an upgrade over last year’s first-round NBA pick after seeing his audition at the Maui Invitational. So far, he’s lived up to the billing. Collison is a markedly better defender than Farmar, is a better outside shooter (46% from three-point range), and runs the team with the same kind of precision and efficiency (2:1 Assist/Turnover ratio).

The Bruins’ only loss, and it’s one that may come back to haunt them against their larger Final Four opponents, is Ryan Hollins inside. Lorenzo Mata is now the only proven post player on the Bruins’ team.

But UCLA is actually stronger on the wing than last year with the return of second-leading-scorer Josh Shipp from a season-long injury in 2006.

Strengths: Defense and Perimeter Play.
The Bruins are the best defensive team in the Final Four, playing Ben Howland’s hallmark smashmouth style imported from Pittsburgh. Every Bruin player will get in his man’s face for the full 35 seconds, contest every open look, and defend every back-door cut. If he doesn’t, a Howland timeout and a seat on the bench will follow immediately. The coach is quick on the trigger if he sees something he doesn’t like at that end of the floor. Howland’s strategy seems to be working thus far. The Bruins forced 15 steals against Kansas and have held opponents to 36% from the field in the NCAA Tournament. Don’t expect any team to do much better against UCLA in Atlanta.

With all due respect to Florida, Ohio State, Oregon, and Nevada, UCLA has the best backcourt in the country. Collison is lightning-quick on both sides of the ball, Arron Afflalo is the Pac-10’s player of the year (and one of its best lockdown defenders), and Josh Shipp has been labeled by Ben Howland as his team’s smartest player. And the Bruins don’t miss much when any of their starting trio heads to the bench for a breather. Michael Roll is one of the best role players on the West Coast—a three-point specialist who can change the complexion of a game in a hurry, and Russell Westbrook is a Collison clone, only lacking in maturity with just one year in the Ben Howland system.

Weaknesses: Inside Depth and Free-Throw Shooting.
As I wrote last week, Lorenzo Mata is an underrated defender and rebounder, and he proved himself in a big way against Pittsburgh’s Aaron Gray. He’s athletic, has long arms, and can influence smaller players around the basket. But he’s only averaging 23 minutes a game. Why? He attracts fouls like a high-powered magnet. 6-8 Alfred Aboya and 6-8 Ryan Wright, the Bruins’ two beefiest bench players, are going to get a lot of minutes against some of the big men in this year’s Final Four.

The Bruins’ post players aren’t very good at the charity stripe, either. Mata is particularly terrible (37% on the season), but luckily for the Bruins, he doesn’t make too many trips to the line. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Alfred Aboya aren’t much better, at 57% and 58% respectively. UCLA will simply have to get the ball to its backcourt (combined 79% FT) in late-game situations if it wants to ice the game.

Crunch Time Strategy:
Few teams are better in the clutch than UCLA, because the Bruins’ three main perimeter options all have the skill and the mettle to hit game-winning shots. Afflalo will be Howland’s first option, but if he’s double-teamed, a Collison penetration or a Josh Shipp curl at the top of the key will be Plan B. UCLA hasn’t played all that many close games this season, but even in losing efforts (as at Eugene in January), Howland’s X’s and O’s have been spot-on.

Prospective Matchups:
UCLA is going to be out-manned inside against its first (and prospective second) opponent in the Final Four. Joakim Noah and Al Horford for Florida will cause serious problems in the national semifinal, and Roy Hibbert and Greg Oden are both nightmares for any team to guard, let alone one with UCLA’s relative lack of post presence. That means the onus is going to be on the Cameroonian duo of Mbah a Moute and Aboya to box out, step up, and stay out of foul trouble.

Afflalo should torch Lee Humphrey for at least 25 in the Bruins’ first game, unless Billy Donovan decides to switch the longer, more athletic Corey Brewer over to the All-American. Collison and Green will be fun to watch at the 1 spot, as will Shipp and Brewer at the 3.

If UCLA can keep pace on the boards and limit Florida’s second chances, the Bruins have a great chance to advance to their second straight national title game. If they get there, they’d match up far better with the Buckeyes because of their superior talent (and height) on the wing and Ohio State’s lack of a starting power forward. But Georgetown is one of the few teams with the potential to contain both Collison and Afflalo on D, and Green and Hibbert might both have career days inside against the Bruins.

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