If you listen to the television analysts and many writers, UCLA seems to be the consensus pick to win the national title. There’s a lot to like about the Bruins with a great run through a very tough Pac-10 season and winning the conference tournament. The Bracket lines up nicely playing in Anaheim and then potentially Phoenix and the Bruins face less threatening teams in the West bracket.
I may be alone here, but I have some concerns about UCLA and won’t be surprised if they fail to make a third straight Final Four appearance. Picking which team will pull off the upset is a difficult task but I think there are reasons that UCLA will be an upset risk.
Injuries are a serious concern for UCLA. Darren Collison is now completely healthy and he delivered huge games in both late season wins over Stanford but injuries to Kevin Love and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute should be serious concerns. Love was the Bruins leading scorer this season but back spasms have limited him in recent games and he was visibly hobbling at several moments and removing himself from the conference tournament final four separate times. Love will face a tough physical battle in the second round facing either 6-11 Trent Plaisted of BYU or 6’9” Joseph Jones and 7’0” DeAndre Jordan for Texas A&M. Even if Love is fine UCLA lost a key player in Mbah a Moute. The 6’8” forward has been a 3-year starter for the Bruins and is second on the team in rebounding while chipping in almost nine points per game. Mbah a Moute sprained his ankle for the second time this season in the Pac-10 tournament and all indications are that it is a severe injury.
After Love and Mbah a Moute UCLA has virtually no inside scoring presence. So the trio of guards led by Collison will need to pick up the slack with big games. Josh Shipp is capable of having great scoring games but he is wildly streaky and can also be a non-factor. Sophomore Russell Westbrook averages twelve points per game but is really more of a defensive player and he might not be able to pick up the scoring void as he will generally be defending the opponent’s top player. If UCLA is going to make a deep tournament run it could be dependent on a very small scoring lineup as Lorenzo Mata-Real and Alfred Aboya offer size but both average just three points per game. Love and Mbah a Moute will certainly do everything they can to play but an absence or a drop in performance would prevent UCLA from being considered a title threat in my mind.
UCLA was also extremely fortunate down the stretch and easily could have lost five of the final six games that they ended up winning. Another factor that prevents UCLA from being considered a truly transcendent elite team is a loss to Washington on February 10th. Washington was 7-12 in the Pac-10 and finished exactly .500 overall. The Huskies didn’t just beat UCLA, they won soundly from start to finish, out-hustled and frustrated the key players for the Bruins. It’s worth noting that this was a game the Mbah a Moute missed and he is such a vital part of the lineup. None of the other elite teams lost to a team as lowly rated as Washington and it perhaps shows that UCLA is not the experienced unflappable veteran team that they are often painted as. The Bruins leading scorer and leader in rebounds is a freshman, their best defensive player and leader in assists is a sophomore. Also don’t forget how important and how good Arron Afflalo was in the tournament runs the past two seasons, as he almost single-handedly won a few games for the Bruins. This year’s team may be good enough to make another great run but there are enough reasons to be concerned, especially when it seems that everyone from the TV analysts to the very casual basketball followers seems to just love UCLA in the tournament.