Sunday, 13 January 2008

Why UCLA is better this year than last year

It seems like a strange thought... UCLA has gone to back-to-back Final 4s, and after each season they lost a guard in the first round of the NBA Draft. But this is still the best team UCLA has had since Ben Howland got to UCLA.

First of all, this is a tribute to Howland and his system. His emphasis on defense obviously works (for proof, just watch the first half of Saturday's game against #4 Washington St). The Bruins are disciplined and quick defensively. They are not the most talented team in the country right now (not that the cupboard is bare, obviously), but that doesn't preclude them from being considered possibly the best team in the country.

But there are 2 main reasons why I think this year's version of UCLA is better than the past couple of seasons:

1) Kevin Love - Obviously, the hype coming into the year was huge. He was a top 3 prospect, seen as one of the most polished big men to enter college in a long, long time. He has certainly lived up to the hype, looking like he might be the best player in the Pac-10 already. On Saturday he scored 27 points, grabbed 14 rebounds, doled out 2 assists, and blocked a couple of shots. He even knocked down a pair of 3-pointers for good measure. On the season he is averaging nearly 17 PPG, 10 RPG, and a couple of assists.

He has an extremely well-balanced game. He can score on the block. He commands double teams, and this opens things up for everyone because he is one of the best passing big men in America. He's very efficient, shooting over 60% from the field (and 8/22 from downtown) and over 78% from the stripe. He is always in control, as rarely has he gotten into foul trouble. He is one of, if not the best big man in the country. Already.

2) Russell Westbrook - This is the overlooked reason for why UCLA has been so good. The injury to Darren Collison to start the season was a blessing in disguise, as it has allowed Westbrook to become a very prolific contributor in his second year for the Bruins. He has now moved to the bench, where he might be the best 6th Man in America. He is averaging 12 PPG, and is leading the Pac-10 in assists with over 5 per contest.

But the numbers don't tell the whole story. He provides another ballhandler to complement Darren Collison. Defensively, he is very quick. He is very tough on the ball, and has quick hands, which is why he averages 1.5 steals per game. At one point on Saturday he picked the ball right from Kyle Weaver and went all the way for a dunk. Even more, Westbrook provides another guy that can be an athletic wing alongside Josh Shipp. He's a solid outside finisher, but he's also strong enough to finish inside. His versatility adds another element to UCLA... he can play the 1 or the 2, and he affects the game so many ways on both ends of the court.

Your thoughts? Is this just homerism? Or is this the best version of the Bruins we have seen so far under Ben Howland?