Good wins: Arizona, California, Notre Dame, Washington, at California
Bad Losses: None.
1. Experience. Three key players for UCLA have been to three straight Final Fours: Darren Collison, Josh Shipp, and Alfred Aboya. They’re rarely going to beat themselves (particularly when you consider Ben Howland is on the sidelines). Collison makes such good decisions at the point guard slot on both sides of the ball–a trait underscored by the fact that UCLA leads the Pac-10 in turnover margin. Aboya has done a nice job avoiding foul trouble this year (he’s only fouled out of two games), something he and frontcourt mate Luc Richard Mbah a Moute were both prone to in previous campaigns.
2. Backcourt Diversity. UCLA has a range of talents and abilities beyond the arc. Collison is a terrific on-ball defender and free-throw shooter. Josh Shipp on the wing has one of the purest strokes on the West Coast and can get his own shot on occasion. Michael Roll provides an outside spark. Freshman Jrue Holliday has had a little bit of a disappointing season offensively, but has been an admirably athletic fill-in for the departed Russell Westbrook. The varying skill sets make UCLA a tough team to scout and guard–evidenced by its conference-leading field goal percentage.
1. Offensive Rebounding. Aboya is really UCLA’s only post presence. Nicola Dragovic at the four is an excellent outside shooter, but an inferior rebounder. Other teams lacking in the paint can sometimes make up for it with excellent team rebounding at the offensive end (Marquette and Missouri come to mind), but such is not the case with UCLA. While part of this deficiency might be due to Howland’s emphasis on transition defense, it must be said that UCLA is more vulnerable to an upset than most teams if its outside shots are not falling.
2. Field Goal Defense. Surprising for a Ben Howland-coached team. UCLA’s lack of post presence rationally translates to a high opposing FG% with lots of baskets in the paint, but the Bruins also rank 8th in the Pac-10 in three-point percentage D. Hot-shooting, perimeter-oriented teams (think back to Michigan’s early-season win over the Bruins in Madison Square Garden) can pose major problems for UCLA.
Bench: James Keefe inside and the aforementioned Michael Roll on the perimeter are UCLA’s key reserves. While not a scoring threat, Keefe typically does a pretty nice job of shutting down the opposing team’s big man at the defensive end. Roll is a streaky shooter, who, when on the floor with Dragovic and Shipp, creates an often-lethal outside arsenal.
The Departing: Collison, Shipp, and Aboya all depart after an incredible career in Westwood. Though the Bruins as a team have considerably less talent than previous editions, this trio has a remarkable will to win–which should not be underestimated when picking against the Bruins. UCLA’s EIGHT freshmen have learned from some terrific leaders, and will absolutely get their chance to contribute next year.
If UCLA is going to return to a fourth-straight Final Four, it’s going to have to do so from a much lower seed than in years past. This edition of UCLA is a bit more offensive-minded than its predecessors, but talent-wise may be outclassed by higher-seeded teams. And UCLA’s weakness on the defensive perimeter means a mid-major upset in the first or second round is not out of the question. They’ve got great mojo playing at West Coast sites, but take UCLA past the Sweet 16 at your own risk.