Darren Collison was going to be UCLA's problem this season. It would impossible for the Bruins not to suffer a game deficit of hard-nosed leadership, crunch-time shooting, swift dribbling and a mean streak that made Jordan Farmar the face of UCLA last season.
When Farmar chose the NBA over his junior season, the Bruins dropped from being a serious contender for the national title to another top-15 team.
Now it's January. The Bruins are undefeated and ranked No. 1.
Collison, who was rated the 98th-best high school player when he was at Etiwanda High, was considered too slight, too inconsistent with his dribble. He made purists cover their eyes when he launched his jump shot with the strange hitch in his motion.
Now the sophomore has already been named the MVP of the Maui Invitational and has been Pacific 10 Conference player of the week.
"That Collison," said Georgia Tech Coach Paul Hewitt, "is the quickest guard in the country. He's fast and athletic but he's never in a hurry. He gets his team in the right position.
"No doubt losing Farmar was a big loss. He opened things up for other players. Now they've got someone like Collison who is patient about scoring and a really quick, aggressive defender. If anything, you could say UCLA traded up a little and that's no knock on Farmar."
Collison had 15 points and seven assists in UCLA's victory over Georgia Tech at the Maui Invitational.
Collison is averaging 13.2 points and 6.4 assists a game. He has 84 assists, 32 steals and only 40 turnovers. Collison's poise has not gone unnoticed by other coaches.
"I wouldn't have said this before," said an NBA scout who was at UCLA's 96-74 thrashing of Washington on Sunday, "but this kid can play at the next level soon."
The scout preferred to remain anonymous because he also thought the 6-foot-1, 165-pound Collison might be best served spending a third season at UCLA growing stronger physically.
But it isn't something Collison hasn't heard from others over the last two weeks.
"I know that word is out there," Collison said Tuesday. "It's flattering to hear that stuff. I won't lie. I've made up my mind that it's just not something I will think about until after the season is over.
"If you let that talk get out of hand it can be damaging to a team. You see that all the time and to me this team has to come first. That's all I've got time to think about."
Collison's parents, Dennis and June (Griffith) Collison, are world-class athletes. Dennis, a 200-meter runner, represented Guyana in the Pan American Games and June ran the 400 meters for Guyana at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. They each have college degrees and professional jobs and sports was a means to one end -- an education.
They offered Darren a gentle push into running in some local races.
"Darren scorched the competition," Dennis said.
But a youth coach who was a stickler for rules said Darren had entered a local running program too late and would be confined to relays. Darren, then 7, knew then that he didn't want to run relays.
"I was faster than everybody," Darren said. "Plus, I didn't like running all that much."
What he liked was basketball, so Dennis built a cement block and a post with a net. June would hear the swish and thud of a basketball going through the net and hitting the cement late at night. Darren would be shooting in the dark.
With education as the foundation of the family, the Collisons sent their son to a private school. It didn't have basketball, though, and when he got to middle school Darren begged to attend public school so he could have a team.
"I told him yes," June said, "as long as he got Bs or better. The first time his grades went down, he'd be back at private school. He never went back."
Collison thrived in school and sport. When he was a junior, the staff at San Diego State pursued Collison most seriously. Then Ben Howland got the UCLA job.
Assistant coach Kerry Keating's father, Larry, who had been an athletic administrator in the east when the Collisons were running track at Adelphi University, went to see Darren play and told Howland to recruit him.
"Honestly," Darren said, "I grew up in love with Arizona. If Lute Olson had ever offered, I'd have gone there. But they didn't. Me and my family like Coach Howland and Coach Keating so that's where I went."
Dennis said he found Howland a straightforward man.
"There were no fake promises," Dennis said. "He told us Darren would not start his freshman year but he could earn playing time. Coach said he'd play 19 or 20 minutes a game and that's what happened. It was the best thing for Darren. It was good for him to spend a season on the bench. Honestly, I was disappointed when Jordan left. I thought Darren would have done well spending a second year learning the game as a backup."
But Dennis also said he was not surprised at how seamlessly Darren had moved from the bench to the court.