Darren Collison’s deliberate rehabilitation from a knee injury provided two benefits for UCLA: The point guard is completely healthy and his understudy has shown rapid improvement.
Both Collison and the second-ranked Bruins face their biggest challenge to date Sunday when A.J. Abrams and D.J. Augustin lead No. 8 Texas into Pauley Pavilion for the marquee matchup of the inaugural Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood Series.
Bruins coach Ben Howland had no problems allowing Collison—an All-America preseason selection and perhaps the best defensive point guard in the country— to slowly recover from a knee injury suffered in UCLA’s first exhibition game. Collison, who averaged 12.7 points and 5.7 assists as a sophomore last season, watched UCLA (7-0) easily dispatch lesser opponents and also defeat Maryland and then-No. 10 Michigan State on consecutive nights to win the CBE Classic.
But Collison finally got to play on Wednesday, and gave the rest of the nation a look at what the Bruins look like at full strength. He had 14 points and five assists in 26 minutes as UCLA rolled to an 83-60 victory over George Washington, going 4-for-9 from the field.
“It was a confidence factor for me. It was about me pushing off my left leg. I didn’t think I was going to play that many minutes,” he admitted. “I got into the flow of the game and it started to go real well.”
Howland was pleased with Collison’s performance, but also noted how well sophomore Russell Westbrook played in tandem with Collison and contributed 19 points, eight assists and seven rebounds.
“You can see all the minutes that Russell gained as a point guard has really benefited when he’s in the game together (with Collison). It’s so exciting to have two guys out there who can play and think like point guards,” Howland said.
Westbrook is third on the team in scoring at 13.3 points per game and is shooting 50 percent.
Freshman forward Kevin Love had 11 points and 11 rebounds for his fourth double-double and is averaging team highs of 18.1 points and 10.6 rebounds.
But Collison and Westbrook are going to have their hands full with Abrams and Augustin, who have led Texas to its second 6-0 start in three seasons. Abrams is averaging 20.7 points while shooting 49.1 percent (27-for-55) from 3-point range, and Augustin is contributing 17.5 points and 7.0 assists per game, making 51.6 percent (16-for-31) of his attempts from beyond the arc.
Augustin picked up the slack for Abrams in Wednesday’s 98-61 rout of Texas Southern. He made 4 of 6 3-pointers and finished with 20 points while Augustin struggled and finished with a season-low 10, shooting 2 of 10 from 3-point range.
Even with the lopsided victory, Longhorns coach Rick Barnes knows this game will serve as a barometer to see what kind of improvements his team will need to make before the start of Big 12 play.
“We’re going to find out Sunday night a lot about our basketball team,” he noted. “What I’ve seen up to this point, I think that UCLA is the best team in college basketball. I think they are a very talented team, a very well-coached basketball team and a team that really defends.
“They are not going to beat themselves. They’ve got the inside game, a mid-range game and a perimeter game.”
Barnes likely will use the tandem of Damion Jones and Connor Atchley to slow Love. Jones had 19 points and 10 rebounds in Wednesday’s win for his fifth career double-double, and Atchley is contributing 11.8 points and 4.8 rebounds per game while shooting 65.9 percent.
UCLA has won both all-time meetings between the teams, which came during the Bruins’ dynasty years in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Then-No. 1 UCLA routed Texas 115-65 in the opening round of the Bruin Classic on Dec. 29, 1971, in the most recent meeting.