After all the changes, the UCLA Bruins look pretty much the same to Patrick Christopher.
“They lost three pros — any team that lost three pros of that caliber wouldn’t be exactly the same,” Christopher said of the defection to the NBA of Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute after last season.
“It’s UCLA. We’re going to see what we’ve seen the last two years in terms of them competing on a high level on defense and doubling the post, hedging hard off screens and being aggressive defensively. They still have (Darren) Collison running the show and doing a great job.”
The Bruins, who share second place in the Pac-10 with Cal and Arizona State, don’t rotate the same series of interior defensive beasts they’ve had in recent years. They’re somewhat more perimeter-oriented on offense, too, especially after replacing James Keefe in the starting lineup with 3-point ace Nikola Dragovic earlier this month to give the offensive a lift.
But Cal coach Mike Montgomery agrees with Christopher that the Bears will see a familiar-looking UCLA squad tonight.
“Very difficult team to beat, same reasons,” Montgomery said of the three-time defending Pac-10 champions, the three-time Final Four participants. “Very physical, very well-coached . . . They still bump you on every cut. They may not be as physical as when they had all those big guys, but it’s the same concept, same principle.”
The Bruins start three seniors, with wing Josh Shipp and post player Alfred Aboya joining Collison in the lineup. Junior wing Michael Roll adds punch off the bench, and Keefe, also a junior, complements Dragovic and Aboya.
It all starts with Collison, which is why Washington so aggressively targeted him with their defense last week in the Huskies’ 86-75 victory at Seattle.
“We know he’s the head of the offense,” UW guard Justin Dentmon said of Collison. “We cut off the head and there is nobody after it. We felt like if we took him out of the game, we’d be able to get stops.”
Collison shot just 5-for-14 and scored 12 points against the Huskies before fouling out at the finishing.
Containing Collison is easier said than done, though.
“He’s been a winner for four years,” Montgomery said. “When they get in trouble, Collison’s going to have the ball in his hands, it’s as simple as that.
“He’s not shot the ball as well as he has in the past, but I certainly wouldn’t want to have it in his hands for a last shot and hope that he misses.”
THE FAB FRESHMEN: UCLA’s freshmen class was rated No. 1 nationally by just about everyone, but the quintet has combined to average the modest totals of 21.1 points and 10.2 rebounds per game.
Consider that Kevin Love gave the Bruins 17.5 points and 10.6 rebounds all by himself last season, while becoming just the second freshman to win the Pac-10 Player of the Year award.
Guard Jrue Holiday is having by far the greatest impact. He starts opposite Collison, and contributes 9.4 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists. Often, he draws the other team’s top perimeter player, meaning he’s likely to defend Christopher tonight.
Washington State coach Tony Bennett said Holiday is being judged against an impossible standard.
“He’s good. He has strength, quickness off the dive, he plays hard defensively. I think he’s very complete,” Bennett said. “He’s a freshman. Is he O.J. Mayo right now? Perhaps not. But he’s going to be a special player, you can see that.
“He has a nice presence about him, the way (Arizona State’s James) Harden did as a freshman, lets the game come to him. I think he’s going to be an excellent, excellent player, no question.”
Power forward Drew Gordon, who prepped at Mitty High in San Jose and played for the Oakland Soldiers AAU squad, averages 3.7 points and 3.9 rebounds in about 11 minutes per game.
The other three baby Bruins — guards Malcolm Lee, Jerime Anderson and J’Mison Morgan — have played sparingly since the Pac-10 schedule began.
Montgomery said the young Bruins will be good players, very good. In time.
“Everybody who goes to UCLA is a superstar,” he said. “It’s hard because kids can’t just go in there and be good players, they have to be superstars.
“Holiday’s an unbelievable athlete. Malcolm Lee and Anderson and those guys are incredible athletes. It’s just that people become very impatient with them. `How come you’re not scoring 25?’
“One, it’s not set up that way,” he said, alluding to the Bruins’ defense-first mentality. “And two, it’s a little bit more of a difficult transition than people would imagine, especially if you’re going to be on a top-10 team.”
WOW: The Bruins have won 31 consecutive regular-season Pac-10 games played on Thursday nights. Their most recent defeat in that setting was at the hands of Stanford during the 2004-05 season.
CAL AT PAULEY: The Bears have won just twice over the past eight years at Pauley Pavilion, and are 8-36 since the facility opened for the 1965-66 season. Overall, during the past 10 seasons, Cal is 11-14 vs. UCLA at all sites.
TIPOFF: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Pauley Pavilion, Los Angeles.
TV: FSN. RADIO: 1550 AM.
NOTES: Patrick Christopher needs 13 points to become the ninth Cal player to reach 1,000 career points before his senior season . . . Fellow junior Jerome Randle is 40 points shy of 1,000. He now ranks 10th on Cal’s career assist list with 313 . . . At 5-foot-10, Randle is the shortest of the 36 players in the nation who had made at least 100 free throws through games on Tuesday night. Randle has made 102 FTs . . . UCLA senior wing Josh Shipp has scored 1,464 points, but still trails older brother and former Cal standout Joe Shipp (2000-03) by 202 points . . . Shipp and Darren Collison (1,409 points) rank 2-3 on the Pac-10’s active career scoring list.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUPS:
Cal (16-4, 5-2):
PF Jamal Boykin, 6-8, Jr., 10.4 ppg, 6.5 rpg
SF Theo Robertson, 6-5, Jr., 12.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg
C Jordan Wilkes, 7-0, Jr., 4.4 ppg, 3.6 rpg
SG Patrick Christopher, 6-5, Jr., 15.6 ppg, 3.9 rpg
PG Jerome Randle, 5-10, Jr., 19.0 ppg, 5.2 apg
UCLA (15-4, 5-2):
PF Nikola Dragovic, 6-9, Jr., 7.9 ppg, 3.3 rpg
SF Josh Shipp, 6-5, Sr., 12.4 ppg, 2.9 rpg
C Alfred Aboya, 6-9, Sr., 8.7 ppg, 5.3 rpg
SG Jrue Holiday, 6-3, Fr., 9.4 ppg, 3.8 rpg
PG Darren Collison, 6-0, Sr., 14.4 ppg, 5.4 apg