Even though All-American guard Arron Afflalo has decided to leave UCLA a year early to enter the NBA draft, expect the Bruins to be one of the nation’s highest-rated college basketball teams for next season.
In fact, if Ohio State 7-foot freshman Greg Oden goes into the NBA too, UCLA will be a consensus choice for No. 1 in pre-season polls.
Afflalo announced his decision to turn pro last week after becoming the Pac-10 Player of the Year and leading the Bruins into the Final Four for the second straight season.
In his absence, Coach Ben Howland will have to find someone to defend the opposing team’s best scorer and take the most important shots at the end of close games.
But big-time college basketball programs are set up these days to deal with player defections. Coaches plan a few years ahead to be prepared for these situations.
In this case, Howland has a couple of ways to go so the Bruins don’t miss a beat.
One plan is to install 6-foot-9 incoming freshman Kevin Love at power forward, leave Lorenzo Mata at center, move Luc Richard Mbah a Moute to small forward and shift Josh Shipp from forward to Afflalo’s guard spot.
Shipp, a potentially high scorer, would inherit Afflalo’s offensive role.
If the position changes don’t work out, players would remain in the spots they held this season and backup point guard Russell Westbrook would take Afflalo’s place, teaming with point guard Darren Collison.
UCLA would be smaller but very swift, and with Love throwing long-distance outlet passes – one of his many skills – there would be numerous fast break opportunities.
Most likely, both lineups will be used at times.
Love’s impact is likely to be dramatic. As a high school center in Oregon he has been considered the best high school big man in the country and there is little doubt he’ll be in UCLA’s starting lineup from the first game.
But few freshmen can dislodge a senior, and so Mata remains important too. Love is capable of playing forward because of his mobility and outside shooting ability. In addition, plays can be run through him because he’s a gifted passer.
Numerous authorities in basketball consider Love the third best recruit in UCLA’s glorious history behind only Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton.
With valued assistant coach Kerry Keating leaving to become head coach at Santa Clara, Howland has filled the position with Scott Duncan, who has credentials to be a mentor to Love.
Duncan comes from Oregon.
“I’m sick about it because he was so valuable here,” said Oregon head coach Ernie Kent. “At the same time I understand and I’m happy for Scott.”
Duncan said he wouldn’t have left for another assistant coaching job anywhere else. He pointed to UCLA’s great basketball tradition.
But there is also the matter of having the chance to help develop Love, something that will be important on his resume. Love is that special.
In planning for the future, UCLA signed 6-foot-8 forward Chace Stanback from Fairfax High and has 6-8 Nikola Dragovic from this year’s team. Dragovic played very little but could become valuable if he learns Howland’s defensive system.
If neither of those players comes around fast the frontcourt reserves will again be Alfred Aboya, James Keefe and Ryan Wright.
Florida, which beat UCLA in the last two Final Fours, won’t have four starters who all have decided to go into the NBA.
UCLA’s toughest competition could come from within the Pac-10. One strong team should be USC, which brings in heralded 6-5 guard O.J. Mayo. But the Trojans will have a key defection too with undergraduate Nick Young going into the NBA draft.