A fresh Collison leading the UCLA drive to San Antonio
LOS ANGELES -- Darren Collison hopped on a hotel treadmill, high above downtown Kansas City, Mo., on a gray November afternoon and started running. He was soon sprinting with the speed level at 11.
But he didn't. He wasn't totally ready yet, even though he flashed a smile saying he probably could go in the game. But Collison and UCLA were cautious, with the intent that he wouldn't come back too soon from a sprained ligament in his left knee.
So, he sat for the first six games of the Bruins' season.
Now look at him. Collison might be the freshest lead guard in the country heading into the NCAA tournament. He certainly made everything -- from end-of-shot-clock management to free throws to ballhandling -- look rather easy in the Bruins' Pac-10 tournament title victory over Stanford, 67-64, Saturday afternoon at the Staples Center.
Collison finished with 28 points, making 12 of 22 shots and 3 of 5 at the line, in 40 minutes and had three assists and zero turnovers.
"I'm definitely a lot fresher," Collison said. "All my work in the offseason is paying off. It was frustrating getting hurt at the beginning of the season, but now I'm ready to win a championship."
"We were very cautious, and we always are with players' injuries," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. "You have to be about the big picture."
But Howland played down that story angle Saturday, saying Collison is in such tremendous shape that he would still be fresh had he played every minute of every game this season.
He might be right, although the players seem to think there is a freshness to Collison's game.
I'm extremely confident with the ball down the stretch now.
--UCLA guard Darren Collison
"It really helped him; it's such a long season," said freshman center Kevin Love, the league's player of the year.
Love had actually had a good run of staying injury-free until Saturday. He tweaked his back early in the game and had to go in and out throughout the course of the game because he was suffering tightness in his back. He said it felt as though a pole was in his back, and he had ice on it after the game. Love rotated with James Keefe and Lorenzo Mata-Real against Stanford's Brook and Robin Lopez.
So, as you can see, the Bruins are used to playing hurt. And with Mbah a Moute hobbled and Love tender, Collison's emergence this week at the Pac-10 tournament as the team's anchor puts the Bruins at ease going forward as a potential No. 1 seed next week.
"A lot of people walked away impressed with Darren [on Saturday]," Howland said. The difference with Collison between this March and last year -- in advance of leading the Bruins to their second straight Final Four (as a freshman, he was a backup to Jordan Farmar in the 2005-06 Final Four run) -- is his experience.
Having Russell Westbrook as an alternative at the point during Collison's absence in November, and now as an impressive sidekick who can defend and be a tough matchup on the break, has made him even more formidable.
Love said Collison was attacking Stanford's "bigs" so well that "nobody could handle him."
"His confidence is so high, it's hard to guard him," said Stanford's Mitch Johnson. "He has such great finishers around him. You've got to pick your poison with him [to challenge him and run the risk that he'll find an open man], but then he'll hit tough runners, too. It's hard to stay in front of him."
Collison was the closer Saturday, splitting the Stanford defense to hit a shot to tie the score at 32 with 2.2 seconds left in the first half. He also made 3 of 4 free throws in the final 28 seconds of the game.
"I'm extremely confident with the ball down the stretch now," Collison said.
Collison said this as he had a piece of the Staples Center net hanging from his hat. The Bruins trimmed the nets, choosing to do so here rather than at Pauley Pavilion on March 6 after beating the Cardinal for the grueling Pac-10 regular-season title. To get to the title, the Bruins had to survive potential tying 3-pointers on the final possession by USC's O.J. Mayo in the semifinals and by Anthony Goods in Saturday's final. In all, four of the Bruins' past five games have come down to the final possessions, including two controversial endings against Stanford and Cal.
Whether or not you agree with the foul called on Stanford's Lawrence Hill at the end of the game the week before, it was still Collison making a play to draw the foul and converting two free throws to force the game into overtime in the final seconds.
If the Bruins are going to be a favorite to win the title -- assuming that Love is OK, and that Mbah a Moute returns -- then it likely will be Collison who will have a decisive say in whether the Bruins get to the Alamodome, let alone win in San Antonio.
"I can't wait," Collison said of reaching the Final Four again. "But I've got to stay focused because that Final Four loss last year really hurt."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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