Collison has chance to lift UCLA higher
The Bruins stand at 17-1, 6-1 in the Pac-10 and are in seemingly every conversation when discussing who could win the national title.
So, should there be anything wrong here? Is there any reason for concern? Not one bit. But there is definitely a sense that we haven't seen the best of this bunch -- not even close.
And while that indicates the Bruins have a legit shot to win the national title, it also underscores that the Bruins aren't a complete product and still have some deficiencies that may or may not be covered up by a role-playing inside game that could hit a road block if it had to go against Florida, North Carolina or Ohio State, let's say, in Atlanta at the Final Four.
Certainly, we digress here, but the reality is that the Bruins find ways to win, leaning on a core group of talent that doesn't catch a needed break for lacking experience in a few key positions, notably the point.
Darren Collison, who started out with a bang at the Maui Invitational, might be the way the Bruins can eclipse the expectations (i.e. being a contender to actually winning the title). UCLA coach Ben Howland was admittedly relieved to get through the past week with a win over the Trojans on a late jumper by junior guard Arron Afflalo, when Shipp was out with a strained right hamstring, and then by outlasting an offensively struggling Arizona club with Shipp but without Mbah a Moute (strained right knee).
But there could be a greater peak to the potential of Collison, who had seven assists, and two turnovers and two steals in the 73-69 win over the Wildcats. Assistant coach Kerry Keating said he envisions Collison becoming even more of a focal point for the Bruins at both ends of the court. His ability to cut through a defense at break-neck speed can fluster an opponent but so too can his cat-quick hands to disrupt the defense. Collison didn't want to pin any improvement on himself but was quick to point out that this is still a young team. He is a starter this season, halfway through the Pac-10, when he was a reserve behind a first-round draft pick Jordan Farmar on the national runner-up last season.
"Collison can be better than Jordan was at the end of the year," Keating said. "That's how we can get better. He starts our offense and defense."
Howland doesn't want to hear how the Bruins could have stretched out the Wildcats to a 10- or 15-point lead to win the game instead of needing to go down to the final two possessions. The Bruins were playing Arizona, a Wildcats team that had just a few weeks ago -- before a recent shooting slump in losing three straight Pac-10 games for the first time since Lute Olson started at U of A in 1983-84 -- was playing like a title contender. And the Bruins, according to the staff, shouldn't be nitpicked for figuring out how to play without Mbah a Moute.
Keating said the core of this team hasn't had adversity because they keep winning, so playing close games is OK. Shipp, who played in only four games last season due to injuries, seconded that opinion, saying that these types of tight games will only make the Bruins stronger in March. The reality is that the entire Bruins program is looking at this Pac-10 grind, where seven bids isn't a reach, as the best primer there is for the NCAA Tournament.
But the first goal is to win the league title. And while the Pac-10 should be applauded for having a true round-robin slate, the league still has an issue of unbalanced scheduling. Oregon, atop the league with the Bruins, is heading out on a four-game road swing in the middle of the conference season which could turn the Ducks' title chances upside down. Washington, which has maybe the youngest team in the league and one of the most talented, got blitzed by a brutal start to the schedule with five of seven on the road. Sure, the Huskies will get the home slate back in February but it may be too late.
Saturday afternoon, the Bruins were able to beat Arizona by going to role forward Alfred Aboya to finish up with free throws, going 4-of-4 late at the line. Aboya and Lorenzo Mata aren't going to wow anyone on the court but they won't crush hopes, either. The main reason is that the Bruins don't seem to have players that play outside of their limitations.
Collison can be the elixir at the point, Afflalo is going to score and defend on the wing, Shipp will be the slasher to the hoop and the opportunist, and when Mbah a Moute returns (which he said on Saturday he's unsure when that will be) the Bruins have their tweener back that can do just a bit of everything. That leaves developing a bench a bit more in the next seven weeks as the next goal, and the Bruins gave a better idea that there is a higher ceiling there too with freshman James Keefe coming off the bench in place of Mbah a Moute and burying a 3-pointer against the Wildcats.
"We're definitely off to a great start and we're winning games and everybody is feeling good about it but I do feel that we can get even more momentum going toward March," Shipp said.
The good news too is that as Keating said there doesn't seem to be any truly great teams out there and that every team -- yes, even Florida and North Carolina -- has its fallible moments and games.
So, all is good here in the Garden of Eden of hoops, where winning, however you find a way to do it on the court, has always been the rule.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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