Fresh off a third consecutive trip to the Final Four—yet still without a title—under Ben Howland, the UCLA Bruins open the 2008-09 season hoping for another run deep into the tournament.
Led by the guidance of Howland, considered by some to be the nation's premier coach, and a star-studded recruiting class, the Bruins and their fans believe that this may finally be the year. But despite a world of talent, the Bruins have some significant obstacles to overcome in order to make a title run.
The fact is that the team lost a ton of talent. First and foremost are the losses of top five NBA Draft picks Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love. In addition, swingman and glue guy Luc Richard Mbah a Moute is now on the Milwaukee Bucks, and fan favorite and center Lorenzo Mata-Real graduated.
That's four of the top six players on last year's team, plus a ton of experience that needs replacing. The recruiting class was the top-ranked in the nation, but all the talent in the world won't make up for maturity and experience.
Here is a position-by-position look at the 08-09 Bruins.
Darren Collison provided a huge lift to UCLA's chances by putting off the NBA Draft to return for his senior season.
Darren is possibly the quickest player in the country when healthy, and his maturity and presence as the leader on and off the court will be a huge help to this otherwise young team. He is unstoppable off the dribble, his shot is reliable beyond the three-point line—even if it is a bit funny-looking—and he can lock up almost anyone on D.
Collison has reached the Final Four in all three of his seasons in Westwood without tasting that ultimate success. It's safe to say that, along with Tyler Hansbrough of North Carolina, Collison is probably the hungriest player in the country to win a title. He's a preseason First Team All-American and without question the leader of this team.
As if being the No. 1 overall high school player in the country wasn't enough pressure, freshman Jrue Holiday has the task of making people forget about Russell Westbrook. While Westbrook didn't put up great stats, his defensive intensity and freakish athleticism made him a fan favorite—and a top four pick. But Holiday has the moxie to do it.
He's a silky smooth combo guard with great athleticism (not on Westbrook's level, but still above average). He can score in almost any way imaginable. He can get to the hole on anyone, he has a deadly outside shot, and he crashes the offensive glass hard. In addition, Collison called him the most mature freshman he's ever seen.
Holiday should be able to shoulder the pressure of replacing Westbrook by not forcing anything and letting the game come to him. Instead of trying to score 20 a game, he'll be able to help the team in every way imaginable. Just look at his line in UCLA's opener: 12 points, seven rebounds, seven assists, and six steals. That's production.
But beware: Holiday is perfectly capable of dropping 30 on anyone if they give him the chance.
Along with Collison, senior Josh Shipp is the leader of this team, both on and off the court. After being hampered by injuries for the better part of three years, Shipp is finally healthy and in the best shape of his life. He showed off his new game in the opener, dropping 20 points on only eight shots (7-8).
This leaner, quicker Shipp will not only provide UCLA with more consistent scoring but also should be greatly improved defensively—something Howland preaches constantly to his players.
James Keefe came on at the end of last year, showing the Bruins that all isn't lost without Mbah a Moute. The rising sophomore's shining moment came against Western Kentucky in the Sweet 16, when he dropped 18 points and grabbed six rebounds.
Keefe is not a flashy player, but he is very productive and efficient. He has a good jumper out to 15 feet and can pound down low with the big guys. UCLA would love for him to develop a post game, as they lack a post scorer and he has the best touch of all the big guys.
As is, the Bruins know they can count on Keefe to make a high percentage of shots, grab rebounds, and hustle nonstop—exactly what they need their big guys to do on this team loaded with backcourt talent.
Freshman J'Mison Morgan is expected to get a lot of time, but for now, the job belongs to senior Alfred Aboya. Aboya is similar to Keefe in that he is not flashy but battles down low and can knock down the occasional jumper. He is a ferocious rebounder and defender, which is sometimes his undoing as he commits unnecessary fouls due to "overhustling."
Howland knows that Aboya needs to stay out of foul trouble this year, and whether or not he can will play a big role in how UCLA's season plays out.
On the rare occasion that Collison comes out of the game, Holiday will be the primary guy to take over the point, sliding down from the two guard spot. In his place will be Michael Roll, a hard-luck junior who has been riddled with injuries. When healthy, Roll is a deadly shooter from deep, and if he can stay healthy, the Bruins will have a great weapon off their bench.
Freshmen Jerime Anderson and Malcolm Lee will also provide depth at the point (Anderson and Lee) and the two guard (Lee). Both are talented, raw freshmen.
Lee, in particular, is very raw on the offensive side of the ball, but his defense is tenacious—a quality which Howland loves and could earn him some extra minutes. At 6'4", he's long enough to guard a small forward yet quick enough to lock up a point guard.
Anderson is a true point, unlike the combo guard Lee, and will likely sit most of the season in preparation for next year, when Collison and probably Holiday are in the NBA. Josh Shipp can also play at the two when UCLA wants a bigger lineup.
The big men off the bench are anchored by a pair of freshmen, J'Mison Morgan and Drew Gordon. Morgan is more of a true center, while Gordon is more of a power forward. As such, Morgan will spot Aboya while Gordon spots Keefe.
Morgan is simply oozing with talent but is probably the most raw player on the roster. He showed great promise in the opener, grabbing nine rebounds in 19 minutes, but his offensive game and conditioning need work. Howland has expressed pleasure in how well Morgan has progressed thus far, so we should see an awful lot of him this year.
Gordon was the first off the bench in the opener, and he is the most polished of the five freshmen after Holiday. He is similar in many ways to Keefe: a low potential player that is very solid in many aspects of the game. He'll give the Bruins a solid jumper, but he's mostly about rebounding and defense.
Finally, Nikola Dragovic is a huge wildcard for this team. The 6'9" Serbian is a sharpshooter from beyond the arc, but problems with injuries and defense have kept him from making an impact. He worked on his D and conditioning throughout the offseason and had a great debut this season, giving the Bruins hope that he can be a major contributor this year.
Simply put, Ben Howland may be the best coach in America. He's certainly on the short list—and if he wins a title this year, it may push him to the top.
Howland gameplans as well as anyone, and he was able to instill a toughness not seen by UCLA teams in decades. He brought East Coast basketball to LA, and it has thrived. The players buy into Howland's system of defense first, and it pays off year after year.
Howland has also shown this year that he is willing to change his philosophies to match his personnel. He has always been a fan of a halfcourt, deliberate offense, but with the excess of guards and athletes on the wings, Howland has publicly said that the Bruins will run this year—and run often.
Making such a dramatic change is not common among coaches nowadays, and it helps Howland stand apart from many of his colleagues.
Overall, these Bruins are as talented as any of the three Final Four teams. The difference, and what could prove to be their undoing, is how young the team as a whole is. With four freshmen expected to play a significant role, the Bruins will need to mature quickly with a tough schedule right from the beginning.
Unlike previous years, a potential undefeated season and No. 1 seed may be unreasonable goals. But this is a team that will get better as the year goes on, and come tournament time, they could be every bit as good as UCLA teams of the past few years. With Collison so hungry for a title, this isn't a team I would bet against come tournament time.
Pac-10 Champions, No. 2 seed, and a fourth consecutive Final Four before losing to North Carolina.