Saturday, March 11, 2006

UCLA Has Much In Reserve

By Gregg Patton, Staff Writer
The Press-Enterprise

So, UCLA's centerpiece player, Jordan Farmar, disappears to the bench five minutes into the game with his second offensive foul.

And after the sophomore point guard comes back eight minutes later, he produces one of his least inspiring games of the year in the semifinals of the Pacific-10 Tournament against Arizona.

So what's the big deal?

With freshman backup Darren Collison picking up the slack -- a career-high 15-point game -- the Bruins rolled to an easier-than-it-looks 71-59 win over the Wildcats.

UCLA is looking so ridiculously good these days, even a freshman can offer a pithy analysis.

"It's scary how many weapons we have," said Collison, an Etiwanda High product who has played so well lately, the team barely misses a beat when Farmar sits down. "I think this team can go pretty far (in the NCAA Tournament) if we stick to our defensive roles."

Suffocating defense has been the defining key for the Bruins this year.

But the offense clicked nicely Friday night, too, especially with Collison racing the ball up the court, taking a page from Farmar's book.

"Darren came right in where I left off and kept it going," said Farmar, who had six assists, but negated that number with seven turnovers, including three offensive fouls. He had a paltry 5 points.

That might have been a recipe for disaster early in the year, but these days Collison is more of a Plan 1A to Farmar than a Plan B.

He was 6 of 10 shooting from the floor, leading the team in scoring for the first time. He had only one assist, but was effective at pushing the ball up court and getting the Bruins rapidly into their offense.

Most pleasing was his lack of turnovers -- perhaps the one statistic that tells the freshman from Rancho Cucamonga that he's found his college game. Collison brought a special quickness gear with him from high school but had to figure out how and when to use it.

"With my speed, Coach was always saying, 'Slow down, you're a little too quick out there,' " said Collison. "It was tough to learn, but the big thing was to limit my turnovers."

Zero was the magic number against Arizona.

If he has figured out when to turn the speed on and off, he also has been an effective part of the Bruins' stifling defense.

"I didn't really have to guard guys in high school," said Collison, who was deft enough to get by on his talent alone.

Division I basketball is something else.

"I had to get much more intense on defense," he said. "I think that's what I do now -- bring a lot of energy to the floor, especially on the defensive end."

At 6-foot, 155 pounds, Collison is often the smallest player on the floor. His game on both ends is predicated on having fast hands and faster feet.

But then again, the Bruins as a whole have never displayed more quickness and intensity on the defensive end of the floor.

After the Steve Lavin years, it's almost hard to imagine a UCLA team getting in the faces of their Pac-10 opponents, night after night.

"We're starting to make a habit of playing aggressive defense for 40 minutes," said sophomore forward Arron Afflalo. "That takes its toll on teams."

It did on Arizona, which had 15 turnovers and shot only 37 percent in the second half, when UCLA ran a seven-point halftime lead up as high as 22.

Said Collison, "This team loves playing defense. We compete against each other really hard in practice, and that carries over to the games."

The current run has the Bruins at 26-6, and a win today away from a tourney title. That would bookend nicely with their regular-season championship.

Those baubles were all on UCLA's radar at the beginning of the season and will make a nice addition to the Bruins historic collection.

But that was no small milestone they pocketed almost by accident against Arizona. It's the first-time a Bruins team has swept three games from the Wildcats in a season -- a notable achievement considering Arizona's dominance in the Pac-10 for the past two decades.

It seemed very much an afterthought in the wake of Friday's victory.

"That was a good Arizona team we beat three times," senior Ryan Hollins said. "But we can't rest on that."

Rest? It's not something the Bruins do much of these days.

Orginally published in The Press-Enterprise March 11, 2006
(reprinted with permission)



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