Reaching the Final Four hasn’t been a problem for UCLA of late. Taking the next step, however, has been a different story.
The fourth-ranked Bruins’ road to a fourth consecutive national semifinal appearance, and possibly further, begins on Wednesday night at home against Prairie View A&M in the first round of the 2K Sports Classic benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer.
Despite losing three starters, UCLA is still an overwhelming favorite to win its fourth straight Pac-10 title, but has its sights set higher.
“That’s the goal at UCLA, to win the national championship,” sixth-year Bruins coach Ben Howland said. “It’s very difficult to get (to the Final Four), it’s a very hard thing to do. We’re optimistic we’re going to have a good team, providing we stay healthy.”
The Bruins, who have not won a national title since 1996, lost to Florida in the 2006 championship game before falling to the Gators in the 2007 semifinals, and Memphis in the semis last season after going 35-4 to set a school record for victories. A fourth-straight trip to the Final Four for UCLA would be the fourth-best run ever behind its own 10 (1967-76) and five each by Cincinnati (1959-63) and Duke (1988-92).
Two-time preseason All-American guard Darren Collison opted to return for his senior season rather than follow underclassmen teammates Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute to the NBA. Collison averaged a career-high 14.5 points with 3.8 assists for a team that went 16-2 in conference play, and was 10th in the country allowing 59.0 points per contest.
“I’m happy I stayed, there are no regrets,” Collison said. “It’s going to be a fun deal. The hunger is definitely there. It’s hard to do (reaching the Final Four), we’re starving to do it. We’re hungry.”
Collison won’t be asked to carry the load himself. He’ll be joined in the backcourt by senior Josh Shipp, who averaged 12.2 points and 3.2 rebounds. The Bruins also return some experience in 6-foot-9 senior Alfred Aboya and 6-8 junior James Keefe, both likely to open in the starting lineup.
UCLA’s brightest star could be one of its youngest, however, with 6-3 freshman Jrue Holiday expected to start.
“Always subject to change. That’s how it is in my mind,” said Howland of starting the McDonald’s All-American from North Hollywood who’s considered to be the nation’s top freshman guards.
He’s part of one of the country’s top freshman classes that includes 6-10 J’Mison Morgan, 6-8 Drew Gordon, and guards Malcolm Lee and Jerime Anderson.
It’s uncertain if sophomore reserve forward Nikola Dragovic will play in this contest after being arrested on suspicion of pushing his former live-in girlfriend to the ground during a dispute.
“Nikola’s a great kid. I’m very confident everything will be rectified soon,” Howland said of Dragovic, who averaged 2.5 points in 25 games last season.
The Bruins will try to extend their non-conference homecourt winning streak to 29 games as they face Prairie View A&M for the first time.
Despite losing their two top scorers from last season’s team that finished 8-22 overall and 6-12 in the Southwestern Athletic Conference, Panthers head coach Byron Rimm remains optimistic.
“We feel that we’ve assembled a team that should be able to have a lot of success in and out of conference play,” Rimm told the school’s official Web site. “Overall we’re extremely excited about this upcoming season.”
Senior guard Derek Johnson returns after averaging 11.0 points, 5.1 rebounds and 3.8 assists in 2007-08.
The Panthers are 0-11 versus Top 25 opponents since the start of the 1997-98 season.
The winner of this contest will play either Weber State or Miami of Ohio in a second-round game on Thursday night at Pauley Pavilion.