2007-2008 UCLA Bruins
KEY WINS: @Washington State, @Stanford, Stanford, @USC, @Arizona, @Oregon, N-Michigan State, N-Maryland
KEY LOSSES: @Washington, Texas, USC
KEY STAT: Field Goal % Defense is 42%
BIGGEST STRENGTHS: The Bruins are clearly one of the best defensive teams in the country. With that comes the reputation that the Bruins have earned regarding their collective toughness; UCLA is one of the “toughest” teams in the country. The defense feeds off the toughness and vice versa. That is something relatively new in Westwood as before the start of Coach Ben Howland’s tenure, the Bruins were thought of as anything but tough.
Howland relies on a strict man-to-man defensive system that focuses on ball pressure and taking away the post. The Bruins accomplish this by doubling on the post and then rotating the defense accordingly. It helps that the Bruins have two of the best defenders in the country in sophomore Russell Westbrook and junior Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. Howland also has UCLA winning the rebounding battles against virtually all comers.
On the offensive end, the clear strength of the Bruins is the play of freshman post Kevin Love. While Love leads the Bruins in scoring and rebounding, it’s the things he does that don’t show up in the stat sheet that really set him and the team apart. He is an adept passer, both inbounding the ball and in the half court. It’s interesting to watch the Bruins when either Love is out or he’s not getting touches; UCLA’s offense just stagnates.
Finally, Howland himself gives the Bruins an upper hand in virtually every match-up they enter. He is a master at preparation, half time adjustments and in-game changes. The Bruins play with confidence every time they hit the floor and that is an extension of their coach.
BIGGEST WEAKNESSES: The Bruins have to play to their strengths because they have some pretty glaring holes, especially considering they are thought of as an elite team. First of all, the Bruins lack a pure shooter. While juniors Darren Collison, Josh Shipp, as well as Westbrook can get hot from behind the arc, that isn’t their game. In fact, Love has led the Bruins in three-point shooting on several occasions this season.
Next, the Bruins lack depth in the backcourt. While the Bruins have been suffering the injury bug since the pre-season, their one apparently season-ending loss may be their most significant; junior Mike Roll, the one three-point specialist on the team, was lost with a foot injury in early in January. This hurts UCLA’s three-point shooting and leaves them with only Shipp, Collison and Westbrook to man the perimeter positions.
The Bruins also suffer from the lack of a go-to guy. It seemed in mid-February that Collison had taken on that role, but then came his 1-8 shooting clunker against Washington. Howland and the Bruins are still hoping that Collison is that go-to player, but it’s pretty clear that there is no Arron Afflalo on this year’s squad.
Finally, as good as Howland is as a coach, he tends to use up his time-outs before “crunch time” in close games. Against both Texas and the first game against USC, Howland and the Bruins were out of time outs with more than a minute remaining in those games. It was particularly an issue against Texas as the Bruins had plenty of time to set up a game-tying or winning shot but they couldn’t get it together without the time out.
‘X’ FACTOR: With the departure of Arron Afflalo early to the NBA, all the ingredients were in place for Collison to make this “his” team. Those ingredients are still present and it’s now up to Collison to take advantage of his considerable skill and leadership ability. As poorly as Collison played against Washington in Seattle, he was again on his game at USC. Even though his shooting was a bit off, fans saw more of the Collison that has been developing over the past several weeks, one who didn’t over penetrate, looked to get his teammates involved in the offense and played very good defense against the opposition’s point guard.
Collison’s strength is clearly his athletic ability. When healthy, he is arguably the fastest point guard in college basketball. When he’s on his game he can take the Bruins to another level as his vision and confidence seem to increase as his game gets “hot”. He is the player that Howland wants on the free throw line at the end of games, (he shoots 90% from the charity stripe), and he’s the only Bruin shooting above 40% from behind the arc.
Collison’s defense can be stifling. He generally beats his man to the spot on the floor that his man wants to get to, both with and without the ball. Earlier in the year Collison was getting beat off the dribble fairly regularly. However, many forget that he was coming off of a knee injury suffered in the pre-season. As his knee has gotten healthy, (and so has his confidence in the knee), his defense has become quite good.
MIGHT LOSE WHEN…..Kevin Love doesn’t touch the ball enough. The Bruins look fluid and dynamic when they run their offense through their 6’9” freshman. The cuts look good, the passing is emphatic and the confidence is palpable. When Love doesn’t touch the ball, the Bruins tend to stand around waiting for an outside shot, they don’t pass well and they look as if they hope theirs shots will go in rather than shooting with confidence. In two of the three losses suffered by the Bruins, against Washington and USC, both teams focused on keeping the ball from Love as their primary means of stopping the Bruins. Washington simply doubled him every time he touched the ball no matter where in the half court he was, while USC employed a triangle-and-two defense to keep the ball out of his hands.
MIGHT SURPRISE YOU WITH……sophomore forward James Keefe. When Roll went down with the foot injury, Keefe came out of his redshirt to provide the Bruins with some depth. While Keefe has yet to develop the defensive acumen of some of his teammates, he is a much bigger threat on the offensive end than any other Bruin post not named Love. He can step out beyond the arc with his shot, he can put the ball on the floor and he is a decent passer. His biggest attribute, however, is that he is a ferocious rebounder.
If Keefe doesn’t surprise you, how about senior post Lorenzo Mata-Real? The starter at center the past two seasons, Mata-Real hasn’t complained at all about losing his starting spot to Love. Mata-Real continues to bring the same intensity and team-first focus that he’s always had. It’s no coincidence that when Howland needs defense in the post, he plays Mata-Real, even at the expense of Love.
PREDICTED NCAA FINISH: In spite of UCLA’s weaknesses, they should still be a favorite to reach the Final Four. In all three of UCLA’s losses, they were within two points or had the lead with less than four minutes remaining in spite of how poorly they played. If Roll returns and the rest of the Bruins stay healthy, you could be looking at the National Champions.