UCLA is relying heavily on Darren Collison, who sometimes appears fatigued due to all the minutes he’s playing. The senior guard, though, certainly won’t get a break as he tries to defend California’s formidable perimeter game.
Collison and the 17th-ranked Bruins, struggling through their worst stretch of the season, will have to contend with the nation’s top 3-point shooting team when they host Pac-10 rival California on Thursday night.
Collison leads a UCLA squad that’s lost two of three and tumbled four spots in the Top 25 this week. He’s averaging 31.6 minutes as the top scorer, while the other four starters are averaging at least 20 minutes apiece.
“Coach is trying to figure out how much (rest) can he give me without losing games,” said Collison, averaging 14.4 points. “I don’t want to back down and just give it all away. It’s up to us to push through it mentally.”
Collison played 36 minutes against Washington on Saturday, finishing with 12 points, five rebounds and five assists in an 86-75 loss that cost UCLA the top spot in the Pac-10. The Bruins (15-4, 5-2), who finished first in the conference the last three seasons, are tied with Arizona State and Cal (16-4, 5-2) for second.
“Nobody is used to this adversity because of all the success,” said Collison, who has been to three consecutive Final Fours while losing just 21 games in four years. “This team is sick to their stomach of losing games. Every one of those losses has really hurt me.”
The Bruins need to get back on track if they hope to stay in contention for their fourth straight Pac-10 championship. Their next test is a resurgent Golden Bears squad that leads the nation in 3-point shooting under first-year coach Mike Montgomery.
Collison, along with his fellow guards, will have to be particularly mindful on the perimeter against Cal, which is shooting 46.9 percent from beyond the arc.
The Bruins, though, held the Golden Bears to 31.8 percent from 3-point range en route to winning all three meetings last season, the most recent an 88-66 victory March 13 in the second round of the conference tournament.
UCLA also boasts the conference’s second-best perimeter defense, holding opponents to 31.1 percent on 3s.
“Every game is a championship game to us now,” Collison said. “This thing is far from over. We’re going to get back on track, that’s my word.”
Collison averaged 15.3 points in the three games versus Cal last season, shooting 57.1 percent (8-for-14) from beyond the arc.
Golden Bears guard Jerome Randle is second in the Pac-10 with 19.0 points a contest, but he averaged 8.0 against UCLA in 2007-08. The junior guard shot 33.3 percent (8-for-24) from the field.
Randle, though, is coming off a big game, finishing with 22 points and five assists in a 76-69 win over Oregon on Saturday.
Cal had lost two straight after entering the Top 25 for the first time since 2003, climbing into the poll with a nine-game winning streak and 4-0 start in conference play. Montgomery talked to his players Friday about their roles, and it seemed to motivate them.
“I think it was kind of regrouping for us after two consecutive losses, seeing where we are,” Cal guard Patrick Christopher said. “The team a year ago might have pointed fingers and turned on each other. It was good for us to come together like a family and talk things out.”
UCLA leads the series 129-94.