Look out, Pac-10: A sizzling sophomore backcourt and frisky freshmen have UCLA off to its best start in eight seasons
The Pac-10 may be dreadful this season--unexpected underachievers include Stanford (2-4 through Sunday), Arizona (5-3) and Oregon (5-4)--but one bright spot has been the continued resurgence of youthful UCLA, which is fast becoming the favorite to win the conference title. The latest evidence came last Saturday, when the Bruins (8-1) handed Michigan its first loss in a 68-61 road victory at Crisler Arena. "This is probably the biggest win we've had since I got here," said Bruins sophomore guard Arron Afflalo, whose 20 points (including five first-half three-pointers) turned Michigan's Maize Rage student section into something closer to Mellow Yellow.
UCLA, which has jumped to No. 12 in the rankings, is off to its best start since 1997-98, not least because Afflalo and his fellow sophomore, point guard Jordan Farmar, have assumed leadership roles that belie their youth. "I feel kind of old," says the 19-year-old Farmar, a flashy distributor who had 21 points against the Wolverines. "We played a lot of minutes in crucial games last year, and we know what to expect in almost every situation." In Ann Arbor they overcame especially challenging circumstances, including a 9 a.m. Pacific-time tipoff, the season's first hostile crowd and final exams the night before the game.
Though Farmar gets most of the media attention, Afflalo may be even more valuable to the Bruins. At week's end he was leading the team in scoring (18.3 points per game), and his lockdown defense stymied Michigan point guard Daniel Horton into a miserable 5-for-17 shooting day. "Not only is Arron scoring for us," says UCLA's third-year coach, Ben Howland, "but he's also our best perimeter defender." In fact, the single most important play during Saturday's victory wasn't one of Afflalo's six treys but rather his cagey steal of Michigan forward Graham Brown's outlet pass to snuff the Wolverines' late comeback. Such pitch-perfect anticipation had its origin off the court; Afflalo had noticed during film study that Horton leaked out too quickly in transition and stepped in front of him to swipe the ball.
It was Afflalo, a McDonald's All-American from L.A.'s Centennial High, who kicked off the new era of UCLA hoops by committing to Howland just six days after he took the Bruins job in April 2003. "I hadn't heard much about him," Afflalo says of Howland, who had completed rebuilding projects at Northern Arizona and Pittsburgh, "but he said I could help turn this program around right away. I took that as a challenge to restore UCLA basketball to its winning ways."
In case his players weren't aware of that history, Howland convened 50 UCLA immortals--including John Wooden and Bill Walton--for a barbecue in August. "It was great for our players to meet them in a relaxed setting," says Howland, who screened footage from Wooden's 10 national championship teams.
The Bruins are a long shot to add another NCAA title banner this season, but they're clearly headed in a positive direction. Three freshmen, headed by 6'7" Cameroonian forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, are making significant contributions. Likewise, UCLA expects 7-foot senior center Michael Fey--who has missed three games with a series of injuries--to return soon and provide a scoring presence in the post that's largely lacking in the Pac-10 (outside of Cal's Leon Powe). And sophomore forward Josh Shipp, the Bruins' third-best player last year, is set to return from hip surgery early next month.
Given those factors, no team in the Pac-10 has more reason to believe it can win the league title. "When I said that at the beginning of the year, some people snickered," says Afflalo. "But this team has a lot of potential, and once we get all our guys back, we'll be that much better."
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