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False impression

Some say that UCLA's Mbah a Moute has regressed after a stellar freshman season, but those who watch and work with him closely argue that discounting his contributions and his progress is foolish

March 14, 2007|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

It's not as if Luc Richard Mbah a Moute has stopped being a very good basketball player.

The 6-foot-8, 230-pound sophomore is the leader in rebounding and is fourth in scoring for a UCLA basketball team that will open NCAA tournament play Thursday as the No. 2-seeded team in the West Regional against No. 15 Weber State in Sacramento.

The problem is, his numbers in both areas are down from last year when Mbah a Moute was freshman of the year in the Pacific 10 Conference -- 8.2 to 7.7 in rebounding; 9.1 to 8.7 in scoring.

Still, there have been few games this season when UCLA Coach Ben Howland hasn't pointedly singled out Mbah a Moute for praise.

"Mbah a Moute made a great pass there in the second half," he'd say before mentioning Arron Afflalo's scoring or Darren Collison's passing. Or, "Let me commend Mbah a Moute for his defense."

It's just that, by comparison, Mbah a Moute was a rock star during last year's run to the national championship game.

He averaged nearly 13 points and nine rebounds a game. UCLA fans wore T-shirts that said "Moute Kicks Boute" as the unassuming native of Cameroon slam-dunked offensive rebounds, ran the court with grace and speed and was unintimidated by a three-week occasion he and his family had been unaware of back home in Africa.

Greatness was instantly predicted, and assumptions were made that Mbah a Moute would be even more of a star this season before quickly moving on to NBA challenges.

Well, not so fast. Mbah a Moute probably will be playing as a junior for the Bruins next season.

An NBA scout who didn't wish to be named said during the Pac-10 tournament, "There's a lot to like about this kid, a lot of upside and he will be a player in the league. But he needs to refine his offensive skills."

Mbah a Moute played only four years of basketball before arriving at UCLA from Montverde Academy near Orlando, Fla. His high school coach, Kevin Sutton, said that while Mbah a Moute increased his scoring for 12 points a game as a junior to 18 as a senior in high school, he shouldn't have been expected to make that same jump in college.

"I think people forget how little basketball overall Luc has played," Sutton said. "He played four years when he got to UCLA. Most kids at that level have been more like eight years if you count AAU ball and traveling teams."

Sutton says he believes Mbah a Moute has been less noticeable on offense because he is learning how to deal with the dull, constant pain of tendinitis in his knees.

"Luc mentions that every once in awhile," Sutton said. "It's not a big deal, but I think it keeps him from jumping the way people saw him last year."

The tendinitis issue has surfaced occasionally this season. Mbah a Moute sat out the first Arizona game because of a sprained right knee, and after most games he walks stiffly off the court.

Mbah a Moute has never complained about his knees. "I'm fine, they're fine, I'm doing fine," he said Sunday after the Bruins had received their NCAA draw.

Howland has been adamant that Mbah a Moute's tendinitis is no different than the pain most basketball players feel at the end of a season. "It's called sore knees from playing basketball," the coach said.

Cameron Dollar, a former UCLA player and an assistant coach at Washington, said there was no reason to criticize Mbah a Moute's play, defensively or offensively.

"I've heard people say Luc hasn't improved," Dollar said. "That's crazy. When you watch film of UCLA you see his impact on the game in so many different ways. You have to watch how the team played against him. Teams had to make different adjustments for Luc this year. The adjustments made to contain Luc better left other players with different freedoms.

"Basketball progress isn't always a straight line. You want progress? His team just defended a league title. If Luc hadn't made progress that wouldn't have happened."

Former Michigan and Arizona State coach Bill Frieder, who is now a radio broadcaster, was at the Pac-10 tournament and at UCLA's game at Arizona State.

In Mbah a Moute he sees a still raw player who has improved his perimeter skills from a year ago and is, "much wiser about the game. You can see it in the way he moves from spot to spot on the floor and the way he has learned how to pass out of the post.

"I think he is a better defender," Frieder added. "I think people want to only look at one or two statistics and make judgments. Maybe he's not quite as explosive off the floor as last year and that's probably because of his knees. But he's a big guy; he'll just have to learn to deal with that. Sometimes kids, when they first get some chronic pain, they're not sure how far they can go."

UCLA assistant Donny Daniels works with Mbah a Moute nearly every day. "Luc is a good assist-maker," Daniels said. "Not just when he gets credited for an assist but by screens he sets, cuts he makes that get other people open.

"As a coach, I assess Luc's progress in a lot of different ways. It's not only about scoring. It's about his court awareness, the way he attacks a zone in the middle, the way he is very unselfish.

"So, do I agree with critics? No. There is no downside and no regression."

*

diane.pucin@latimes.com

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