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October 13, 2008

Monday tip: Will UCLA make fourth Final Four?

Duke was the last team to make four consecutive trips to the Final Four. The Blue Devils crashed the party five times in a row, from 1988-92, capping the last two with national titles.

UCLA is in the midst of an impressive streak of three consecutive Final Fours under Ben Howland. Like Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski, Howland has no championships to show for the first three. But Coach K broke through in 1991 to win his first, and when the Blue Devils won in 1992 they became the first team to repeat as champs since UCLA in 1973.

Howland would love nothing more than to join the club. The question is: Does he have the horses to get back to the Final Four? The frontcourt was decimated by early departures, with freshman sensation Kevin Love and forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute heading for the NBA. But the Bruins are at a point where they simply reload, and there is help on the way as well as plenty of returning talent.

We asked Rivals.com basketball editor Bob McClellan and staff writer Andrew Skwara if they believed the Bruins would make it a quartet of Final Fours. Here is what they said:

MCCLELLAN'S PICK: NO

The backcourt is going to have to be unbelievable because the frontcourt either is unproven or inexperienced.

Seriously, how will the Bruins compete against a good front line without Love and Mbah a Moute? The projected starters up front are Alfred Aboya (2.9 ppg, 2.2 rpg) and James Keefe (2.8 ppg, 2.7 rpg). The Pac-10 is not shuddering at the thought.

Aboya is a senior who never has averaged more than 18 mpg. And he's extremely foul-prone. He committed 90 personals last season, second-most on the Bruins to Westbrook's 93. The problem is Westbrook played 1,318 minutes; Aboya played just 594. That's a foul every 6.6 minutes. No wonder he can't stay on the floor long.

Keefe is a junior who averaged 11.7 mpg last year. Even if his minutes double this season, that translates to 5.6 ppg and 5.4 rpg in 23.4 mpg. Yes, Keefe had an 18-point, 12-rebound performance against Western Kentucky in the NCAA tournament. Anyone believe he'll post Love-type numbers next season?

That puts a lot of pressure on freshman center J'Mison Morgan, a Rivals.com five-star prospect who got a release after signing with LSU and cast his lot with the Bruins. Morgan is 6-10, 275 pounds, so he has the size to man the middle. He also has long arms and good timing defensively, but his offensive game is not as polished. Anyone expecting him to be Love on the offensive end is going to have to wait a couple of years.

Yes, the Bruins have Darren Collison and Josh Shipp. Yes, they have another great recruiting class, and five-star guard Jrue Holiday will be a major star. More importantly they have Howland, one of the best coaches in the land.

UCLA still will be very good. I agree with most who have them the favorite in the Pac-10. We do at Rivals.com, too.

But the Final Four? I believe it's just a bit too much to ask of this group.

SKWARA'S PICK: YES

So the Bruins don't seem to have much of an inside game. That's no big deal.

Rewind to life before Love in Westwood. The two teams Howland had prior to Love's arrival had average frontcourts at best. Yet, the 2005-06 Bruins managed to go all the way to the national title game and the 2006-07 Bruins reached the national semifinals. Neither of those teams had the luxury of a post player who averaged double figures in scoring, which should let you know that Howland knows how to win and win big without an inside scoring threat.

Here's what should scare the rest of the Pac-10: The 2008-09 Bruins are more talented than either of the first two teams Howland took to the Final Four. They may even be more talented than last season's team, which produced a pair of top-five picks (Westbrook and Love).

The Bruins are welcoming the nation's No. 1-ranked recruiting class, with five prospects ranked among the top 50. That includes No. 2 overall prospect and future lottery pick Holiday.

That young quintet isn't joining a team without some proven veterans either. Collison is one of the nation's top point guards, and Shipp played a major role on two Final Four teams.

Add in Howland, who may be better than anyone at squeezing the most out of his teams, and I have to believe the Bruins are going back to the Final Four. In this age of parity in college basketball, it has become one of the few things we can still count on.

Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at bmcclellan@rivals.com.
Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com.



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