Even with the departure of shooting guard and leading scorer Arron Afflalo (16.9 ppg), the Bruins still might have the top backcourt in the Pac-10. Juniors Darren Collison and Josh Shipp will help pick up much of Afflalo's slack.
The 6-foot Collison emerged as one of the nation's elite point guards in his first year as a starter last season. Blessed with great speed, Collison showed he could be a great playmaker. He ranked second in the Pac-10 in assists (5.7 apg) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.9-1). He also is a terrific defender, racking up a league-high 2.2 steals per game.
With Arron Afflalo's departure, Darren Collison must rise to the occasion. .
The 6-5 Shipp will move from small forward to take over Afflalo's old spot. Shipp is known for his versatility and savvy. The Bruins need him to be more aggressive on the offensive end, and it would help if he can improve his outside shooting. He shot 31.6 percent (42-of-133) from beyond the arc last season.
Sophomore Russell Westbrook and junior Michael Roll will see significant minutes off the bench. The athletic Westbrook, who has been impressive in the local summer leagues, is the backup point guard. However, he'll also play alongside Collison occasionally. Rolle is a good outside shooter, but can be a defensive liability.
There are freshmen ranked higher than Kevin Love – he was No. 6 overall in the class of 2007 – but none may end up playing a bigger role in the national title race. Love, a 6-10, 260-pounder, gives the Bruins exactly what they've lacked the past two seasons: a big interior presence and a low-post scoring threat. A bruising player who seems to enjoy contact, Love can overpower most defenders and single-handedly dominate the glass. The five-star prospect also has a solid jumper with deep range. But his best attribute is his outlet passing, which will help ignite the Bruins' offense.
Fifth-year coach Ben Howland plans to play Love alongside versatile junior forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and senior center Lorenzo Mata-Real, a defensive specialist. The trio should allow the Bruins to dominate the boards. The presence of Love and Mata-Real (who has added his mother's last name) in the paint will allow Mbah a Moute to play more away from the basket, where he is more dangerous.
Junior forward Alfred Aboya is an experienced post player who will provide depth. Sophomore forward James Keefe, who saw limited action last season, is sidelined with a shoulder injury. Keefe is expected to return for the start of the Pac-10 schedule in early January.
Last season the Bruins were efficient, ranking second in the Pac-10 with a 47.7 field-goal percentage. But they weren't explosive, and their 71.4 points per game ranked fifth in the league.
That will change some with the departure of their best outside shooter (Afflalo) and the arrival of a great rebounder and outlet passer (Love). Expect the ultra-conservative Howland to tell Collison to push the pace more in an effort to take advantage of the team's speed and create more fast-break opportunities.
Afflalo was the Bruins' best perimeter defender, but don't expect much drop-off. No coach may do a better job teaching man-to-man defense than Howland. His players give great effort and are particularly strong at providing help when a teammate is beaten.
Outlook with postseason forecast
Staying healthy is the key. The main difference between the Bruins and the other national-title favorites (Memphis, Kansas and North Carolina) is depth. The Bruins lack it at certain positions. There is a major drop-off behind Collison and Shipp. But if those two remain injury-free, there's no reason this team can't make another deep NCAA Tournament run. The Bruins have a difference-maker at point guard, a roster full of players with postseason experience, one of the best coaches in the game and the kind of big man they long have coveted.
Shoes to Fill
Afflalo. This first-round draft pick was "Mr. Reliable" in Westwood. He scored in double figures in 33 of 36 games last season.
Must Step Up
Shipp. This talented wing has been an ideal No. 2 or No. 3 option on offense. But can he be a go-to guy? He must if the Bruins are going to get back to the Final Four. Shipp looked capable in the loss to Florida in the national semifinals last season. With Afflalo's playing time limited by early fouls, Shipp scored a team-high 18 points.
Love. Rarely do you see a big man with Love's combination of size and skills. Love possesses a frame and the nasty streak needed to be a dominant inside force. But he's such a good shooter and passer that he's a perimeter threat, as well.
Andrew Skwara is a national basketball writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rivals.com is counting down our Preseason Top 64. Coming tomorrow: No. 2.