UCLA coach Ben Howland finally likes the team he has compiled. He only wishes it was ready for the opener.
The 19th-ranked Bruins will be missing some key players when they host New Mexico State in the first round of the Preseason NIT on Tuesday.
UCLA went 18-11 a year ago in Howland’s second season and lost to Texas Tech in the first round of the NCAA tournament. That team was anchored by freshmen Jordan Farmar, Arron Afflalo and Josh Shipp.
Shipp had arthroscopic right hip surgery in September and is at least six weeks away from playing. Farmar (right groin strain) and Afflalo (left quadriceps contusion) each missed portions of preseason practice, but are expected to start Tuesday.
The Bruins will be without senior center Michael Fey due to a severe groin strain, and freshman forward Alfred Aboya, who had arthroscopic knee surgery last month
“I really want to push the ball and try to get it up and down in a hurry,” Howland said. “A big part of that is we have to have depth. Going into the season, I thought that was going to be one of our strengths, having depth. Once we get Alfred, Josh and Fey back at full strength, it’s going to be a big plus for us.”
UCLA will welcome senior Cedric Bozeman back to the lineup after he redshirted last season due to a knee injury. Bozeman is a former McDonald’s All-American who has been plagued by a number of injuries throughout his career. He missed seven games as a freshman due to knee problems and eight as a sophomore with a shoulder strain.
Farmar started every game in his rookie season, averaging 13.4 points to earn Pac-10 freshman of the year honors. Afflalo added 10.8 points per game.
Cameroon native Luc Richard Mbah a Moute has emerged as the lone freshman in the Bruins’ starting lineup. The 6-foot-7 Mbah a Moute is in just his fifth year of organized basketball.
“Luc is in the starting lineup, he’s one of our better rebounders, he’s a good defender for a freshman, (although) he still got a ways to go there like any new player,” Howland said. “He plays hard and he plays with intensity. He’s going to make a big impact just based on the fact that he’s a starter.”
New Mexico State will make its debut under former NBA player Reggie Theus, who served as an assistant at Louisville the last two years. Theus’ top returning player is senior guard Mike Mitchell, last year’s leading scorer with 12.3 points per game.
Aggies guard Elijah Ingram will also make his debut after transferring from St. John’s two years ago. Ingram, one of six Red Storm players who broke curfew at a strip club on a road trip two seasons ago, averaged 13.2 points as a sophomore for St. John’s in 2003-04.
Howland is familiar with Ingram from his days coaching in the Big East at Pittsburgh.
“Elijah Ingram really adds a new dimension to them,” he said. “He’s a very good player, he led St. John’s in scoring two years ago, McDonald’s All-American. He’s a lefty who can really shoot.
UCLA has won six of seven meetings with New Mexico State, including the most recent one in 1992.
The winner will face Temple or Army in the second round.