Overall Rank: #4
Conference Rank: #1 Pac-10
2007-08: 35-4, 16-2, 1st
2007-08 postseason: NCAA
UCLA did make two Final Fours without much of a frontcourt before Kevin Love was in Westwood. However, those teams also had some relatively experienced big men who complimented the guards quite well. This year the only experienced options in the frontcourt are Alfred Aboya and James Keefe. Both are juniors, but both have been stuck down the bench for the last two years for the most part. Aboya is a tough player and a hard woker, but he is not going to be the post scorer that the team lacks. Keefe has had some impressive games when he has been healthy. He ended the 2007-2008 campaign quite impressively and could emerge as the units best player. Nikola Dragovic, a sophomore who averaged less than ten minutes per game last year, will have to be ready to see more minutes off the bench.
The issues in the frontcourt are about a lot more than just losing Love. But if Love was back, there would be few issues at all. During his only collegiate season, Love led the Bruins with 17.5 points, 10.6 rebounds and 1.4 blocks. Replacing him in any way is just not possible. Love leaving early for the NBA was not a surprise, but Luc Richard Mbah a Moute left too. The 6-8 power forward averaged 8.8 points and 6.0 rebounds as a sophomore last year and could have been the team’s main interior scoring threat. Making matters worse is the graduation of Lorenzo Mata-Real. Mata-Real was an important part of the team’s three consecutive Final Four appearances. His role diminished later in his career, but his leadership and depth will be missed. Chace Stanback, Matt Lee, DeAndre Robinson and David McGrath are also gone, but arguably the biggest loss of them all is Russell Westbrook. Westbrook, who was drafted one spot before Love with the fourth overall pick in the NBA Draft, tallied 12.7 points and 4.3 assists his last year with UCLA.
The absence of Westbrook will not be felt as much as the losses up front due to the return of some talented players and a few great newcomers, most notably Jrue Holiday. The expectations on Holiday are enormous. He should step into Westbrook’s starting spot at the off-guard position and most expect him to be just as good as Westbrook. The scary part is in another year he could be better. Like Westbrook, Holiday is quick and can handle the ball in addition to the usual scoring. Unlike Westbrook, Holiday is a solid outside shooter. With that dynamic part of his offense, Holiday should be among the top scorers on the team, if not the top scorer. Point guard Jerime Anderson and shooting guard Malcolm Lee are both capable and talented players. They may not see a ton of playing time as freshmen, but both have enough talent to earn minutes over some of the returning players at some point this season. Drew Gordon and J’mison Morgan will have to be ready to contribute in the frontcourt. Gordon, a 6-8, 235 pound power forward, is a great athlete for a player his size and Morgan could emerge as the team’s best post scorer before the end of his freshman campaign.
Who to Watch:
Darren Collison missed a few games early in the year due to a knee injury, but when he was healthy and ready to play he was the leader of the Bruins and averaged 14.5 points and 3.8 assists. Without Westbrook by his side the 6-1 senior has to take over an even bigger leadership role. But it will be Josh Shipp who picks up some of the scoring slack. Shipp’s shooting has been inconsistent lately, but he is a capable outside shooter who can do much better than 32.4 percent from beyond the arc. Michael Roll is also back after only playing in six games last year due to a broken foot. The 6-5 wing could see a lot of playing time if Shipp’s shot does not start falling.
Can Coach Ben Howland make it four Final Fours in four years? It is very possible. As long as the frontcourt can find a scorer or two and the newcomers live up to their lofty expectations, the Bruins will win the Pac-10 and be among the favorites to reach the Final Four.
Projected Post-season Tournament: NCAA
Projected Starting Five:
Darren Collison, Senior, Guard, 14.5 points per game
Jrue Holiday, Freshman, Guard, DNP last season
Josh Shipp, Senior, Guard, 12.2 points per game
James Keefe, Junior, Forward, 2.8 points per game
Alfred Aboya, Junior, Center, 2.9 points per game