Monday, December 26, 2005

UCLA Bruins Basketball: Progress Report (12/26)

By Bruin Basketball Report

The UCLA Bruins basketball team entered the 2005-06 season with high expectations.

In preseason polls the Bruins were ranked No.18 and picked by many to finish third in the Pac-10 this season behind Arizona and Stanford.

Since the preseason predictions, the Bruins (10-1) are off to their best start since 1995 when they last won their last championship, and they have moved up to No.11 in the most recent polls.

Although the Bruin's non-conference schedule has been criticized for being too "soft", when in actuality, the Bruins have a strength of schedule rating of No.18 and an RPI rating of No.6 - playing tough teams such as Memphis, Nevada, Michigan (away game), Temple, Drexel (which barely lost to Duke), and an under-rated Wagner team.

The Bruins have lost only a single game - to the Memphis Tigers in the Preseason NIT tournament, a Tiger team which is currently ranked No.5 in the country.

If anything, expectations are now perhaps even higher in Westwood.

How are the Bruins doing so far this year as the Pac-10 conference season begins this week?

BBR takes an indepth look at the progress of the 2005-06 Bruin squad since November.

Starters: Grade B+

The team is led by one of the best young backcourts in the nation, Jordan Farmar and Arron Afflalo.

Jordan Farmar, a preseason John Wooden Award candidate, is the steady point guard and undisputed leader of the team. When coach Ben Howland needs a big play he usually turns to his sophomore to make them.

Against a tough Memphis team, Farmar practically shot the Bruins back into the game single-handedly, and against Wagner it was Farmar who dribbled until he found a wide open Luc Richard Mbah a Moute for the game winner. He leads the team in assists (6.6) and steals (1.2)

The Bruin's fortunes are tied to Farmar. As long as Farmar can stay healthy and continue to progress as a player and leader, the Bruins will have a chance to do very well this year.

While Farmar is the fiery and vocal leader of the team, sophomore Arron Afflalo has led with his actions. Afflalo is the Bruin's leading scorer (18.2) and draws the toughest backcourt defensive assignment.

Afflalo's performance in the Michigan game reflects his contribution the best this year. Afflalo not only shot the Bruins back into the Michigan game by scoring 14 of the Bruins first 16 points, but he also clamped down on Michigan's best player Daniel Horton holding him to 5-17 shooting (0-7 from 3-pt).

Fifth-year senior Cedric Bozeman has started every game at small forward. On the defensive end his play has been steady - his speed and length makes him an ideal wing defender. However Bozeman's offense has been inconsistent, disappearing at times within the Bruin offensive half-court sets.

In Bozeman's first seven games he averaged 13 points and 5 rebounds per game, but in the last four games against tougher opponents he's averaged only 6.5 point and 2.8 rebounds.

All this comes at a time when sophomore Josh Shipp is about to return to the team after rehabilatating from knee surgery. Once Shipp improves his conditioning he will probably move back into the starting line-up with Bozeman moving to the bench.

At the beginning of the year the Bruin's power forward position was a question mark. Freshman Alfred Aboya had been penciled in as the starter by coach Ben Howland but then went out with knee surgery in October.

Howland decided to start Aboya's fellow freshman and Cameroon countryman, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute at the four. Although under-sized at 6'7 for the spot, Howland liked his speed and tenacity. Mbah a Moute has not made Howland regret his decision.

Mbah a Moute has led the Bruins in rebounding in every game this year averaging 8.9 per game and can be found not only fighting opponents for every single rebound - but also his own teammates. He is shooting 50% and averaging 8.2 points per game.

The center spot has been the Bruin's biggest weakness this year and the reason the Bruin starter's grade is below an "A". However, the recent play by underclassmen, Lorenzo Mata and Ryan Wright, who have started the last 6 games has been promising for the Bruins.

Wright has shown flashes of good play, especially against Michigan and Nevada, but is still learning the game at this level and at times gets lost on defense.

Mata has shown steady improvement this year with his rebounding and shot-blocking, and has displayed an effective hook shot. Against Sacramento St. Mata had 7 rebounds and 4 blocked shots. Mata gives the Bruins a toughness in the low post which they have lacked for a few seasons.

Coach Ben Howland has already stated that either Wright or Mata - most likely Mata - will be the starting center when the Pac-10 season starts for the Bruins against Stanford.

After an offseason of weights and workouts, seniors Michael Fey and Ryan Hollins were suppose to solidify the middle. Instead injuries, inconsistent and soft play have characterized their season thus far. The two seniors may still contribute this year especially with the Pac-10 season beginning, but more aggressive and consistent play will be needed from them.

Bench: Grade C

At the beginning of the season, coach Ben Howland stated he wanted his starters to play fewer minutes in order to keep them more fresh for tournament time; however, injuries have plagued the team and have forced the Bruins to move players he had expected to be on the bench to starting roles.

The situation has been positive in the emergence of Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and the re-emergence, yet inconsistent play, of Cedric Bozeman. However until recently, the starters had still been averaging over 30 minutes per game due to a lack of depth on the bench, but this is changing quickly as the walking wounded are returning one by one to the Bruin line-up.

Freshman guard Darren Collison has been the shining star and the first reserve off the bench. Collison sparked the Bruin offense to victory in tough games over Nevada, Michigan, and Wagner.

When Collison enters the game he changes the tempo of the game to fast and then faster. He uses his blazing speed to get past his defender and to the basket for a finish. Many times when Collison enters the game Farmar moves to the off-guard and Afflalo to small forward giving the Bruins a potent 1-2-3 scoring punch that is tough for the opposition to match-up with.

Aside from Collison, however, the rest of the bench has been inconsistent.

Freshman Michael Roll, the Bruins designated zone-buster, has had problems with a consistent shot and has not been able to create his own shot at this level yet. Janou Rubin, a sixth year senior, has not been able to earn more playing time. And the reserves at center, as mentioned above, have been inconsistent.

But this is a depleted bench due to injuries, and help is coming.

In only his fifth game, Alfred Aboya had his best game against Sacramento St. scoring 12 points and showing aggressive intensity in the low blocks.

Lastly, super sophomore Josh Shipp is scheduled to finally return to action against Stanford this week. Shipp will begin on the bench but will probably be in the starting line-up once his conditioning returns which would send Bozeman to the bench.

Certainly, a bench of Collison, Bozeman, and Aboya will improve the bench's grade as the Pac-10 season progresses.

Coaching : Grade A-

Four years ago, the Bruins would have lost games like Michigan where they got behind on the road early and close games against Albany and Wagner as well.

No doubt about it. This isn't ex-coach bashing. Just the plain truth.

Head coach Ben Howland knows how to coach and he knows how to win tough games. And it all starts on the defensive end.

When high scoring Nevada's Nick Fazekas faced the Bruins, Howland took Fazekas out of the offensive flow by doubling him whenever he touched the ball.

In the Michigan game, sure, Arron Afflalo's shooting got the Bruins back into the game, but it was the Bruin defense which kept them in it. The Bruins doubled down on the Michigan starting post players and held them to zero field goals for the game.

Against Wagner and Albany, both lesser teams, the Bruins did not fold when they got behind and were able to pull out the close games at the end by executing on the offensive end while playing tough defense.

Howland has instilled a toughness in the program. This is evidenced not only by his coaching style but by his recruiting. Arron Afflalo, Howland's first big recruit, is as tough a collegiate guard you'll find. Farmar is unflappable under pressure and will not let the Bruins lose without a fight. The post men, although still raw, are wider and tougher than in previous years.

This is Howland's simple formula for success. Tough defense. Tough players. And if he has the personnel to run - he will have the offense run. This year's team is dominated by excellent perimeter players and thus Howland wants the Bruins to push the ball up the court at every opportunity. Howland knows the team's best offense is in the transition.

The Pac-10 will bring tough games every night for the Bruins, but the Bruins are set for a special season.

Bruins Starting Line-up and Depth Chart

PG - Jordan Farmar*, Darren Collison, Cedric Bozeman
SG - Arron Afflalo*, Jordan Farmar, Michael Roll
SF - Josh Shipp*, Cedric Bozeman, Arron Afflalo
PF - Luc Richard Mbah a Moute*, Alfred Aboya, Ryan Wright
C - Lorenzo Mata*, Ryan Wright, Michael Fey, Ryan Hollins

*starters (Shipp when he improves his conditioning)


Pac-10 conference season preview coming tomorrow.


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