We could have gone for one of the pretentious UCLA blogs out there, but instead we went to a real fan, Insomniac, of the appropriately named Insomniac's Lounge. Hey, anybody who took the time to make this post must be a great fan.
UCLA coach Ben Howland has found the road map to the Final Four, having now guided his Bruins basketball team to play games in football stadiums (RCA Dome, Georgia Dome, Alamodome) in three consecutive years. While this is certainly a remarkable achievement in its own right, at UCLA success is ultimately only measured by national championships, and that is where Howland has been hitting a dead end. With a restocked lineup, Bruins fans have reason to hope that this is the season their team finally breaks through with a title. But this year, the journey will be missing the contributions of three players (Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute) who left early for the NBA.
On the court, this team belongs to senior Darren Collison, who surprised many people by electing to return to school for one final run at a championship. Collison hit over 52 percent of his three-point attempts last season and will be asked to pick up some of the scoring slack this year created by the departures of Love and Westbrook. He'll have plenty of help as he'll be joined by fellow seniors Josh Shipp and Alfred Aboya, as well as the quickly blossoming James Keefe. And there are five highly touted incoming freshmen to form what may well be the deepest team Howland has ever assembled.
Jrue Holliday, J'Mison "Bobo" Morgan, Drew Gordon, Jerime Anderson, and Malcolm Lee form UCLA's version of the Fab Five, and their development will be key in determining how far the Bruins advance this year. PG/SG hybrid Jrue Holliday is a scoring machine and should step right in for Westbrook on the offensive side of the ball. At 6-foot-10, Morgan is a gifted shot blocker, and may very well be pushing Aboya for the starting job by the time conference play begins. Gordon is a tad undersized for the low post at 6-8, but he has a great nose for the ball and finds a way to get the job done. Lee and Anderson will join redshirt junior Michael Roll to provide depth in the backcourt.
Of course for any of these freshmen to get significant playing time, they're going to have to learn to play Howland's style of basketball, which is to say defense, defense, defense. Howland calls for a lot of double teams on the high screen and then again on the low block, and so these young players will need to learn their rotations, be quick to react, and be in great shape. It wasn't until the middle of January until Kevin Love was competent enough in all of those phases to get big minutes. The Bruins are going to need this group to be quick studies.
For the only time in any of these players lives, they'll be looking forward to going to Detroit -- the site of the 2009 Final Four. A Pac-10 title and a No. 1 or No. 2 seed should be theirs for the taking as Stanford has taken a hit in talent and Arizona appears to be in a state of utter chaos. Unlike the previous three years, there will not be any NCAA tournament games in California this year, as Portland and Boise are the western "pods" this time around. However UCLA did play its first two rounds in Boise in 1995, and that turned out OK. Bruins fans can only hope that history will repeat itself.
Why they should be ranked here: Guard play. In this day and age, it's rare for a college team to have an elite senior point guard, but that's exactly what UCLA has going for it with Darren Collison. He and Holliday will provide a dynamic duo that should be able to maintain fresh legs with Lee, Anderson, and Roll all providing quality relief.
Why they should be ranked higher: Because Tyler Hansbrough is hurt, perhaps? On the flipside, Josh Shipp appears to be the healthiest he's been in his entire UCLA career. If Howland allows this team to push the ball up the court, then Shipp could flourish on the wing of countless fast breaks and highlight dunks. Also, unlike last season, the face of this team won't be a freshman just passing through town, and their focus will be on a title, not the NBA.
Why they should be ranked lower: I love the passion and spirit that Alfred Aboya brings each night, but his talents are best used coming off the bench. He is not the caliber of the typical starting center of a championship team. If March rolls around and J'Mison Morgan hasn't taken the starting job away from Aboya, then this team is going to struggle to make it four for four in the Final Four.