For UCLA's three freshman starters--Arron Afflalo, Jordan Farmar and Josh Shipp--homesickness hasn't been a major problem. "They all come from within a 15-mile radius of campus," says Bruins coach Ben Howland. "They understand the expectations at UCLA, and they want to be a part of rebuilding this program." Thanks in large part to this precocious talent, the Bruins are on their way to becoming relevant again. With an 18--9 record (11--7 in the Pac-10, tied for third) and five wins in its last six games, UCLA is poised to make its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2002.
Coming off an 11--17 campaign, Howland expected his newcomers to have an impact, but after senior point guard Cedric Bozeman was lost to a torn right ACL before the season began, the youth movement became the focus of the team. The point guard spot was handed to the 6'2" Farmar, who as a senior led Taft High of Woodland Hills to the city title, the first by a San Fernando Valley school in 40 years. Farmar has flourished as a starter, averaging 13.5 points (second on the team) and 5.3 assists. The 6'5" Afflalo, who led Centennial High of Compton to its first Division III state title last year, has become UCLA's defensive stopper while still scoring 11.0 points per game. And Shipp, a 6'5" swingman whose Fairfax High team lost the city final to Farmar and Taft but rebounded to win the Division I state championship, is averaging 9.0 points and 4.9 rebounds.
But starting three wise-beyond-their-years freshmen is only part of UCLA's winning formula. Another key decision made by Howland was to shift 6'7" senior Dijon Thompson from shooting guard to power forward. Though often matched up against bigger opponents, Thompson leads the Bruins in scoring (18.5 points, second in the Pac-10) and rebounding (8.1) and has brought stability to the UCLA lineup.
The Bruins now await their sternest test. They have a fitting mentor in Howland, who guided Pittsburgh to the Sweet 16 in 2002 and '03. "Since UCLA has not been so successful for a few years, I see an opportunity to change things and do something great," says Afflalo. "I believe we have the potential to win six games in the NCAA tournament. I can't wait." --Julia Morrill
DANNY MOLOSHOK/US PRESSWIRE (FARMAR)
Farmar has given his all and played like a Bruins veteran from Day One.