UCLA coach Ben Howland thinks Texas could reach the Final Four.
Having been there each of the last three years, he should know.
The 12th-ranked Bruins and No. 8 Longhorns meet for the second straight season - this time in Austin - in the Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood Series on Thursday.
Texas (5-1) has not been to the Final Four since 2003, but did reach the regional final in 2006 and last year. Howland, who has been able to guide UCLA (4-1) to the national semifinals each year in that span, noted a fundamental difference this season in the Longhorns that may get the Big 12 favorites to Detroit.
“Last year, they played a lot of zone. They’re getting out and pressuring, extending the floor,” Howland said. “It’s a completely different style of defense and difficult to play against. They’re so athletic, so long. They really are strong, athletic, deep and have all experienced players.
“They’re a team that would not surprise me at all to play in Detroit.”
Howland’s current team is still establishing its identity in a bid for a fourth straight run to the Final Four, and took a step forward Saturday in routing Florida International 89-54. Freshman Jrue Holiday went 8-for-8 from the field and scored a season-high 20 points for the Bruins, who shot 65.4 percent.
“Jrue is Jrue,” senior guard and leading scorer Darren Collison said. “We expect that from Jrue from here on out. I’m not trying to put any pressure on him, but he’s a good player and that’s what good players do. We expected games like that from Kevin (Love) last year and we expect it from Jrue now.”
Ironically, Collison - averaging 15.0 points and shooting 63.4 percent - likely will have the most pressure of anyone on UCLA as he tries to defend Texas sharpshooter A.J. Abrams, the school’s all-time leader in 3-pointers made with 303.
After playing three games in three days to help the Longhorns to a third-place finish at the Maui Invitational earlier in the week, Abrams appeared fatigued as he was held scoreless in the first half and made only one shot from beyond the arc in Sunday’s 77-56 win over Rice.
“I think he was tired,” Longhorns coach Rick Barnes said. “A.J. played the most minutes over there and I don’t even know what his final minutes were. He had to average over 38 minutes over there three days in a row. The NBA doesn’t even typically do that.”
Abrams, who is shooting 42.2 percent (19-for-45) from 3-point range and scoring 15.8 points per game, needs 19 to pass B.J. Tyler for 10th on Texas’ all-time scoring list.
Last year, the Longhorns escaped with a 63-61 win at UCLA as Damion James slammed home a miss by Abrams with 8.3 seconds left in a game that had nine lead changes and two ties in the final 12:52. It is a victory that still resonates for Texas, which is trying to defeat a ranked opponent at home for the ninth straight game.
“I think anytime in the year you have a big win over a program like UCLA it changes expectations,” Barnes said. “They are an extremely skilled basketball team. They shoot the ball well. They have tremendous guard play. And I think they make it difficult to score, they play to their strengths.”
James finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds last year against the Bruins. He’s averaging 14.5 points and a team-high 8.0 rebounds.