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James Keefe loses his spot, but not his cool

Forward was benched in favor of Nikola Dragovic because the Bruins were looking for more offense.

January 29, 2009|David Wharton

Any second now, James Keefe is going to lose his temper. The big guy with the buzz-cut hair is going to drop that deadpan expression and start fuming.

But first he has to get through a mouthful of peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich.

The UCLA forward chews. And chews some more. Finally he gets around to the subject at hand: losing his starting job midway through the season.

"I mean," he says, and then pauses. You can almost see the emotions roiling beneath the surface as the next words come out: "It's difficult."


Shouldn't Keefe be angry about taking a seat on the bench when 17th-ranked UCLA tips off against California in a Pacific 10 Conference showdown at Pauley Pavilion tonight?

The Bruins owe him for his sacrifice last season, right?

A curious look crosses his face: "What do you mean?"

Go back to the summer of 2007. After putting up decent numbers as a freshman reserve, Keefe hurt his left shoulder and needed surgery to repair a torn labrum. The UCLA coaches told him to redshirt, give the injury time to heal.

Then, midway through the season, swingman Michael Roll suffered a serious foot injury and Keefe was rushed back into action, out of sync after four months on the sideline. So much for that redshirt year.

"I did what the program needed," he said.

In case you haven't guessed by now, the young man from Rancho Santa Margarita approaches life in a fairly laid-back manner. Beach volleyball. James Bond movies. His mother, Cathy, said: "He has a gift for enjoying the moment of whatever he's doing and finding the fun and the good in it."

At a bulked-up 238 pounds, Keefe could throw his weight around but never gets too loud.

"Have I ever seen him get angry?" Josh Shipp said. "Not really."

But don't think that Keefe is soft on the court. After a rusty start last winter, he began to assert himself coming off the bench.

"He's a big body," said Washington forward Jon Brockman, one of the strongest players in the conference. "He may not be putting up 30 points on you, but he's getting a lot of things done defensively and in other areas."

And, as the Bruins worked their way through the 2007-08 postseason, Keefe came up clutch.

Clutch as in eight points, three rebounds and a block against Stanford in the Pac-10 tournament final. Then came the NCAA tournament and a Sweet 16 matchup against Western Kentucky.

On a night when some of the big names struggled, Keefe had 18 points and 12 rebounds, and the crowd chanted his name.

Which set the stage for this season, Coach Ben Howland naming Keefe as a starter.

Through the first half of the schedule, the junior ranked second on the team with 4.6 rebounds a game and drew praise from Howland for his defensive play. But he averaged only 4.1 points, and on a team searching for offensive firepower that eventually became an issue.

Howland replaced Keefe with Nikola Dragovic earlier this month.

While scouting UCLA for last week's game, Washington Coach Lorenzo Romar said he understood.

"It depends on what you want," Romar said. "Do you want additional toughness or additional scoring, because that's what each of them brings."

Keefe said, simply, "Last year was a sacrifice. But this is a new year and everything's up for grabs."

In recent weeks, with his playing time shrinking to 12 minutes a game, he has averaged 3.0 points and 3.6 rebounds. Dragovic has played 29 minutes a game, averaging 13.2 points and 3.6 rebounds.

Howland says that while Dragovic still ranks behind Keefe in defense, the gap has narrowed. So if Keefe holds any advantage in this predicament, it might be his sense of calm.

He acknowledges some frustration at losing his starting role, but so far there has been no visible pouting on the bench.

"I try to look at the big picture," he said. "No matter how bad your day is going or things aren't working out, there are still things to look forward to."

Like becoming more of an offensive threat. With a decent outside shot, Keefe wants to boost his scoring and assists, another category in which he lags.

"I'm just going to have to work on it," he said.

Just as soon as he finishes that peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich.


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