There is a sense of optimism around Pauley Pavilion that at first glance seems hard to justify. The Bruins are led by two sophomores; their three seniors are still trying to establish themselves as solid contributors; and the team has been hit so hard by injuries that only eight scholarship players were healthy when preseason practice began.
But coach Ben Howland is still smiling, largely because he knows that those young leaders, point guard Jordan Farmar and his backcourt partner, Arron Afflalo, aren't typical sophomores. Farmar, a smooth playmaker who describes himself as "a natural-born leader," and Afflalo, a steady defender, were the only Bruins to start every game last season, and now they appear capable of guiding UCLA back to the NCAA tournament. "I think Coach Howland is comfortable with Arron and me taking charge," says Farmar. "He's letting us do what comes naturally, which is to help motivate and push guys, to set the tone for the way we do things here. He's given us that challenge, and we're loving it."
Four of last year's starters are back, or will be eventually. In addition to Farmar and Afflalo, 7-foot senior center Michael Fey and sophomore forward Josh Shipp, who underwent hip surgery in September and won't be available until December, are returning. After working hard in the weight room over the summer, Fey and another 7-footer, senior Ryan Hollins, are likely to emerge as consistent forces in the paint. The slender Hollins bulked up to 232 pounds, and Fey, who was already a sizable 270, is stronger in the upper body.
Improved production from the Bruins' big men could help make up for the departure of leading scorer Dijon Thompson, now with the Phoenix Suns. UCLA should get a lift from the return of senior swingman Cedric Bozeman, who missed last season with a torn ACL. Bozeman was a prized point guard when he arrived as a freshman, but he never quite lived up to expectations. With his versatility, he may be better suited to the role he'll likely be asked to play this season--as a super sub, filling in at several positions. "It's a big year for all the seniors," Bozeman says. "We want to end our careers the right way, and we'll do whatever it takes to make that happen." It's important for the Bruins to have the upperclassmen on board, but the sophomores will do the driving.
Coach Ben Howland has been winning the battle for L.A.'s top prospects, keeping super sophomores Arron Afflalo and Jordan Farmar, plus promising freshmen Darren Collison and Mike Roll, at home.
Coach: Ben Howland 2004-05 record: 18-11 (11-7, T3 in Pac-10)
2005 tournament: Lost in 1st round to Texas Tech
Josh SHIPP [RETURNING STARTER]
Michael FEY [RETURNING STARTER]
Arron AFFLALO [RETURNING STARTER]
Jordan FARMAR [RETURNING STARTER]
Cedric BOZEMAN‚Ä† [RETURNING STARTER]
*HIGH SCHOOL STATS
RETURNING STARTER *HIGH SCHOOL STATS ‚Ä†2003-04 STATS
ENEMY LINES an opposing coach's view
If their big guys play well, the Bruins can compete with anybody--but that's a big if.... They need Josh Shipp (hip surgery) back because he's a good ball handler, scorer and rebounder.... Alfred Aboya's a good athlete and a tough inside rebounder, which they need.... Jordan Farmar is very strong and very good at getting his angles. You can't get on his hip because that's how he gets inside and finds people.
STEPHEN DUNN/GETTY IMAGES
Farmar, the Pac-10's top freshman in 2004-05, is the playmaker who has to get more out of the Bruins' big men on offense.