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ON COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Matchups may favor Bruins

January 16, 2008|Robyn Norwood

It wasn't even halftime of UCLA's victory over Washington State on Saturday, and you could already imagine the chatter getting louder.

Could this be the year the Bruins hang a 12th NCAA championship banner?

Ben Howland, if he's reading this, is probably saying, "Geez, it's four games into the conference season!"

But the rest of us aren't bound by any the-next-game-is-the-biggest-game mind-set. And while trying to pick the NCAA tournament's field of 65 or the four No. 1-seeded teams is a waste of time right now -- the rest of the regular season, injuries and the unpredictability of the conference tournaments can change all that -- it's valid to take a few minutes to look at the how the Bruins stack up against the best.

Make that "match up," because that's ultimately what the NCAA tournament is about, and no Bruin needs to cue the Florida tapes from the last two Final Fours to know that.

Ask around, and despite North Carolina's long run at No. 1, Kansas is the head-turning team of the moment.

"I don't think it's close, this is the best team in the country," Oklahoma Coach Jeff Capel said after losing to the Jayhawks by 30 Monday night. The Sooners also played No. 2 Memphis and lost that one too, but played the Tigers 20 points closer than they did the Jayhawks.

"They are so balanced," Capel said. "They shoot better than Memphis. They are bigger. They are probably equally as good in transition, but this team passes the ball better."

North Carolina has the best array of offensive players, with bruising player-of-the-year candidate Tyler Hansbrough inside, guard Wayne Ellington capable of scoring 36 points and knocking down game-winning three-pointers outside and speedster Ty Lawson running the point. But the Tar Heels have a depth issue, going only six or seven deep at times, and are down a backup point guard with Bobby Frasor lost for the season because of a knee injury.

Memphis has veteran athletes led by Chris Douglas-Roberts, a future lottery pick at the point in freshman Derrick Rose and a defensive brute inside in Joey Dorsey. But the Tigers also have that long, deadening march through a Conference USA schedule that isn't going to challenge them. And as far as the style matchup goes, two years ago in the NCAA tournament, UCLA's defense clamped down on Memphis' athletes, 50-45, to send the Bruins to the Final Four.

This season's Bruins have much the same personnel as last season's second consecutive Final Four team, plus the offensive skill and passing of freshman center Kevin Love -- but minus Arron Afflalo, although the rapidly emerging talent of Russell Westbrook has helped.

The polls have it as North Carolina at No. 1 and Memphis at No. 2, but that is hardly the way everyone sees it.

"I love all four, but I like Kansas and UCLA more right now," said ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla, the former St. John's and New Mexico coach who worked the Kansas-Oklahoma game.

As far as UCLA goes, "the thing that Ben has done is they have been as consistently good defensively as anybody in the country," Fraschilla said. He also called Love the most versatile big man on any of the elite teams.

"The reason I love Kansas is you're looking at a group of guys that many expected might not be in college this long," Fraschilla said. "They have a really good core."

Brandon Rush would have been drafted if he had turned pro out of high school. Now he's a junior who withdrew from the draft last year after a knee injury and is one of four Jayhawks scoring in double figures, behind Darrell Arthur, Darnell Jackson and Mario Chalmers.

The Jayhawks can play defense and offense, outside and inside. But they aren't a nightmare matchup for UCLA. The Bruins won the West Regional final over the Jayhawks last season, albeit behind a big game from Afflalo.

Fraschilla's ESPN colleague Doug Gottlieb has Kansas at No. 1, too. And although he has Big 12 ties as a former Oklahoma State player, Gottlieb isn't afflicted with bias against the West Coast. He grew up in Orange County, starring at Tustin High, and he ranks UCLA at No. 2.

"As of now, Kansas is probably playing the best of anybody," Gottlieb said. "Nobody believes in Kansas, and it's unfair, but it's because of Kansas' past postseasons.

"UCLA's strength is it doesn't self-destruct and it creates offense off its defense if it's having an off night offensively. And now they have a low-post scorer who's a very good passer.

"I think the weakness at the end of the day is their guards are just OK. The whole is better than the sum of their parts. Westbrook is very quickly emerging as a talent but he's not the guy who's going to score when the shot clock runs down or have a huge game. Darren Collison is good, but he doesn't have that extra gear Jordan Farmar did to create his own shot. Josh Shipp is a very good shooter and for all his injuries is still a very good athlete, but he's not like Indiana, with Eric Gordon, or Wayne Ellington at Carolina. They don't have that."

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