I recently discovered that Jessica Alba is a fan of UCLA athletics. Also recently discovered Shakira is not only an enrolled student at UCLA, but that she is a history major.
Why are these things relevant? Because I used to be a history major at UCLA who subscribed to Maxim for the sole hope of a Alba or Shakira covershoot. In fact: my dorm room had a giant poster of Shakira over my bed, to compliment John Belushi, Che Guevarra, Dirk Novitzki, Snoop Dogg, Tupac and Shug Knight. The most eclectic group of college posters you could hope for.
The thing is, I didn’t go to UCLA when Shakira was there, or when Jessica Alba was showing up to rallies. The only celebs I saw were a fat Chris Webber and Tyra Banks, a slutty Jessie Spanos, a sweaty Master P, a morbidly obese Michael Moore, a washed-up Mr. T, an extremely tall Asian (Yao Ming), a coked up Topanga and Corey Matthews, and a neutered Nick Lachey.
I also didn’t go to UCLA when the sports teams were any good. In the two years since I graduated, UCLA’s basketball team has been to consecutive Final Fours. In the four years I was at UCLA, we went to one Sweet 16, and didn’t make the tournament TWICE, the second time being the first losing season in 40 some odd years.
Life is not fair. But I remain loyal.
My birthday is coming up, and the older I get, the more pathetic my loyalty to my alma mater and hero worship of 19 year old kids becomes. In my mind though, I can reasonably be a devout fan of college basketball as long as there are players remaining on the team who were at the school while I was there. So thank you, Lorenzo Mata and Josh Shipp.
On to the preview…
2007-2008 UCLA Bruins
PG: Darren Collison (Jr.) - Collison is arguably the best point guard in college basketball. His strengths include an incredible quickness, blazing speed, impressive toughness for his size, and a deceptively consistent shot from long range. He answered all those who doubted his ability to take a leadership role once Jordan Farmar left for the Lakers by leading the team back to Final Four, highlighted by an astounding defensive performance against Kansas.
With the departure of Arron Afflalo, Collison will be expected to guard the opposing teams’ best guard. His rangy arms give opposing players’ fits and make him a pesky threat to poke turnovers into easy transition baskets. He’ll have to remain healthy for the Bruins to be a title contender, because this team is dangerously thin at the guard position.
SG: Josh Shipp (Jr.) – The 6′5″ Shipp has had trouble remaining healthy over his career, probably because he was playing at a weight a little heavier than would be advisable for a wing. He’ll have tremendous shoes to fill by sliding down to the off-guard position to replace the departed All-American Afflalo. While Shipp is neither the shooter nor the tenacious defender that Afflalo was, he is an exceptional athlete with impressive basketball intelligence and other intangibles. Assuming he has improved his outside shot, he could be the leading scorer and go-to guy for this veteran team.
SF: Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (Jr.) – Mbah a Moute suffered somewhat of a disappointing sophomore slump after a very impressive and unexpected breakout season in 2006. In an effort to improve his particularly weak shooting and ball handling skills, the forward moved away from what made him so effective: offensive rebounding and second chance “garbage” points. It will be a tall order to ask the 6′7″ Cameroonian to slide down from power forward to the small forward position, where teams will undoubtedly give him space on the wing and dare him to shoot or drive into a zone. His defensive prowess and toughness will keep him in the starting lineup, but it will be his improved shooting and takes off the dribble that determines whether he is an All-American and lottery pick or a second-team Pac-10 role player.
PF: Kevin Love (Fr.) – The much anticipated arrival of Kevin Love has Bruin fans buzzing over the Nov. 9 opener against Portland State. Love represents an answer to the teams’ Achilles Heel of the previous two seasons: an offensive post-presence. The 6′10″ freshman is the #1 recruit in the country and has drawn comparisons to Wes Unsled and Bill Walton for his throw-back fundamentals and ability to dominate the defensive glass and initiate fast-break opportunities with powerfully accurate outlet passes. The Love to Collison attack should increase the pace of the UCLA attack, which in the past was quite methodical and often criticized as “ugly.”
C: Lorenzo Mata (Sr.) – The sole senior on the team has made tremendous strides since his awkward freshman year. Mata has added an impressive jump hook to his arsenal that should force teams to stay on him instead of doubling down on Love. His timing, footwork, hands and shot blocking have all vastly improved over his four years. However, it remains to see if his free-throw shooting has improved, or if it will remain as an embarrassing liability to the team.
PG: Rus Westbrook (So.) – The speedy Westbrook made quite an impression on me during the tournament run last season. He is absolutely fearless taking the ball to the rack, although he doesn’t yet possess Collison’s floor-vision or decision making abilities. His mid-range opportunities should open up with the departure of Afflalo, and he could very well end up being the team’s fourth option on offense.
SG: Mike Roll (Jr.) – Who??? Mike Roll is the presumptive “gunner” on the team, but has yet to show the confidence or consistency to earn the distinction. With Love clogging the low post or drawing attention form the high-post, Roll should see his opportunities increase. It’s just a matter of him stepping into his shots and knocking them down. He is a hard worker, a great interior passer, and a good team defender, which should get him a fair amount of minutes.
SF: Chace Stanback (Fr.) – Stanback is reportedly 6′8″ with impressive range. He is rail thin and I could see him getting out-muscled in practice, which tends to get pretty physical under Coach Ben Howland. Should be a solid contributer over four years, but I don’t expect much from him in his freshman campaign.
PF: Nikola Dragovic (So.) – Dragovic found himself in Howland’s dog house last year for his inability to play tough defense. He reportedly can shoot from anywhere on the court, and is tall enough to shoot over anyone. It’s a matter of how hard he is willing to work to get on the court.
C: Alfred Aboya (Jr.) – The man-child Aboya is a fan favorite for his toughness and intimidating presence on the court. He should be rotated in frequently for both Mata and Love, although his contributions will be limited to the defensive side of the court.
Players Departed – Arron Afflalo (Draft), Ryan Wright (transfer)
OVERALL: Coach Ben Howland has in his fourth year what could be his best team yet. Between them, his players have been to a combined 14 Final Fours. There is no other team in the country that can match UCLA in terms of experience. Howland will be challenged with structuring a new system that best utilizes the skills of the big-bodied freshman Love, who could end up as this seasons’ Greg Oden.
The team looks to be one of the strongest, toughest, and best rebounding teams in college basketball… which comes as somewhat of a surprise given UCLA’s and the Pac-10’s reputation for “softness” and a preference for offense over defense. With Collison and Westbrook pestering rival PG’s and Mata, Love and Aboya swatting shots, scoring on the Bruins will be no easy task.
The primary concern about this team is its distinct lack of consistent threats from beyond the arc. If UCLA runs into a hot-shooting team like Louisville, Memphis, or Oregon, they may find it difficult to come from behind… similar to the San Diego Chargers under Marty Shottenheimer, who were built to control the game around LaDanian Tomlinson.
There are many X-factors to this season, but it is important to note that UCLA is a heavy favorite to win the Pac-10 and reach the Final Four regardless of whether the “X-factors” pan out positively or not. Firstly, just how good is Kevin Love? Will he dominate college competition the way he did in high school (where he averaged over 20 points and rebounds per contest)? Will Shipp stay healthy and quick enough to guard guards instead of wings? Will Mbah a Moute succeed away from the basket? Will Collison learn to be a leader and distributer without Farmar or Afflalo? Will Jessica Alba replace Ashley Judd as the hottest fan in college basketball?
Stay tuned sports fans…