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MEN'S BASKETBALL: Some observations from Maui . . .

LAHAINA, Maui - UCLA finished second in the NCAA tournament last season and lost two important roster parts, but the Bruins regained one who had been a significant contributor the year before.

LAHAINA, Maui - UCLA finished second in the NCAA tournament last season and lost two important roster parts, but the Bruins regained one who had been a significant contributor the year before.

The Bruins won the regular-season and conference tournament titles in a strong, deep Pac-10 and scrapped their way through the NCAA field with a defensive elan that seemed to have departed the program with John Wooden's retirement. Their total dismantling of powerful LSU in the national semifinal had such aficionados of defense as Bob Knight smiling (well, almost).

Still, with the exception of the Chicago Tribune's Skip Myslenski, the college hoops pundits have pretty much ignored the Bruins as a national title contender, some preferring Kansas (which has already lost to Oral Roberts), some North Carolina (which has lost to Gonzaga) and some Florida, the defending champ, whose early-season schedule leading up to Saturday night's Kansas game was softer than, well, Notre Dame's football slate.

"Statement" is an overworked term in sports these days, but UCLA made one with a dominating performance in the Maui Invitational, finishing an impressive three-game run with an 88-73 victory over Georgia Tech in Wednesday night's title game.

A blowout did not seem at all likely when they tipped off. Tech had looked quite formidable in overpowering a scary-good Memphis team one night earlier. Maybe that effort took too much out of the Yellow Jackets, as they simply couldn't match the Bruins' energy and efficiency at either end of the floor. Arron Afflalo scored 19 points, Luc-Richard Mbah a Moute added 14 on 7-for-7 shooting and Darren Collison had 18 with seven assists to earn the tournament's MVP award.


"This is very gratifying," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. "I like our team because we're so unselfish."

More than three months will pass before the NCAA bracket sheets are distributed, but a word to the wise: Keep UCLA in mind when filling it out. That's hardly a revelation. This is UCLA, winner of 11 national championships, not George Mason.

But the Bruins have won only one of those titles in the last 30 years, while Duke, North Carolina and Kentucky have won three in that span and Connecticut and Louisville have won twice. And because the Pac-10 has unwisely made other television commitments, UCLA is not a frequent ESPN guest, which keeps them under the radar in this "Dookie V" era.

But the Bruins might be the most versatile team in the land, blessed with shooters, slashers and an efficient cleanup crew inside. Concern that they'd miss Jordan Farmar, last season's do-it-all point guard, has been allayed by the play of Collison, a fast and fearless sophomore who runs the show at both ends. And as long as Howland is the coach, UCLA will play defense. Some other Maui observations:

Where's Luc?

Teammate Afflalo joined MVP Collison on the all-tournament team, along with Georgia Tech's Lewis Clinch, Memphis' Chris Douglas-Roberts and Purdue's hard-working Carl Landry, a worthy choice. Overlooked was UCLA's Mbah a Moute, who hit 15 of 19 shots in the Bruins' wins over Kentucky and Georgia Tech and seemed to come up with a bucket each time his team needed one.

Best player

The two-dozen NBA scouts in attendance left with notebooks full. Each team, probably including Division II host Chaminade, had at least one pro prospect. Afflalo has the size and the two-way skills the pros covet in a guard. Memphis' Douglas-Roberts can get his shot anytime he wants, and sculpted teammate Joey Dorsey might be Karl Malone if he could shoot.


Yet Kentucky center Randolph Morris might be the first player drafted. He tends to disappear at times, but he has a nice shooting touch for a big man and, of course, size that can't be taught.

Best freshman

Again, every team has at least one getting meaningful minutes. Memphis' Willie Kemp is a dangerous shooter, and Kentucky's Derrick Jasper is just a really good basketball player. But flip a coin between Georgia Tech's Javaris Crittenton, a 6-foot-5-inch point guard, and 6-8 teammate Thaddeus Young, a smooth, skilled left-hander who might be great once he realizes how good he is.

Careful what you wish

Officials appear to be under orders to call a closer game, cracking down on more physical play.

"They should," Memphis coach John Calipari said. "One of the things that's wrong with our game is that it's become a slugfest, like lacrosse. If a defender puts two hands on a guy, they're going to call it. If he rides a guy off the ball, they're going to call it. And they should."

One night later Memphis was whistled for 37 fouls and had three starters foul out as Georgia Tech shot 50 free throws and beat the Tigers in the semifinals.

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