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A BETTER BRUIN BUNCH? UCLA VICTORY IN MAUI TURNS HEADS.

Byline: BRIAN DOHN Staff Writer

LAHAINA, Hawaii - Pacific-10 Conference regular-season and tournament championships, a berth in the Final Four and an appearance, albeit losing, in the national title game.

By the end of last season, only one team in the nation was playing better than UCLA, and that was national champion Florida.

However, despite losing three starters to the NBA off a 32-win team, the Bruins appear to be better than the collection that helped restore UCLA's tarnished image.

No. 5 UCLA was, by far, the best team at the Maui Invitational, capturing arguably the country's most prestigious in-season tournament by throttling No. 19 Georgia Tech 88-73 in the title game.

And the victory followed a strong effort in a 73-68 defeat of No. 20 Kentucky in the semifinals after a layup of an opener against Division II host Chaminade.

``It depends on what you judge our team off of, the basis of it,'' Bruins junior guard Arron Afflalo said. ``Last year's team went to the championship, and to most people that would mean winning the championship is the only thing that would make us better.''

In the truest sense, it is hard to argue with Afflalo.

However, when looking at the makeup of this year's team, it is clear how much more complete the Bruins appear to be.

UCLA lost point guard Jordan Farmar, a sophomore last season, to the NBA. Farmar was a tremendous on-court leader with a nasty competitive streak. However, his defense was suspect, and defense is the backbone of coach Ben Howland's system.

In point guard Darren Collison, a sophomore, the Bruins have an unproven player at crunch time, but a guy who loves to push the ball in transition, defends like a maniac and showed he can handle on-ball pressure by weaving through Kentucky and Georgia Tech when full-court pressure was applied.

Collison was so instrumental in Maui he was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player after averaging 13.3 points, seven assists and three turnovers.

``We're a totally different team,'' Afflalo said. ``One of those is the ability to rebound and do things, and Darren's ability to pick up full court allows us to play a little more up-tempo. It's a good thing for us.''

Junior Lorenzo Mata has given the Bruins a tough, physical presence in the middle, and he is also scoring. Mata, averaging 8.3 points and 7.8 rebounds per game, manhandled Kentucky center Randolph Morris, and pushed around Georgia Tech's low-post players.

UCLA spent much of last season searching for good center play. When Ryan Hollins finally showed it, the Bruins excelled.

Before losing to Florida, UCLA won 12 straight.

Meanwhile, reigning Pac-10Freshman of the Year Luc Richard Mbah a Moute continues to be the quintessential power forward. He digs loose balls, gets easy baskets off offensive rebounds and plays superb defense, using his 6-foot-8 frame and long wingspan to create an imposing double team.

While wing Cedric Bozeman's defense is missed, sophomore Josh Shipp is better offensively and has innate basketball sense.

``I love our team because they're so unselfish,'' Howland said. ``They don't care who gets the credit. Like the MVP. Darren got it, and congratulations, but it could have been Luc, it could have been Arron Afflalo. It doesn't really matter. At the end of the day, we're just marching forward one game at a time.''

Even UCLA's bench is performing well, punctuated by sophomore wing Michael Roll's 13-point first half against the Yellow Jackets.

Backup sophomore centers Ryan Wright and Alfred Aboya played well, reserve freshman point guard Russell Westbrook took care of the ball when Collison was in foul trouble against Kentucky, and freshman power forward James Keefe has already shown he can rebound.

``I still think we've got a lot more games to prove it,'' Collison said. ``This was only a test to see where we were at mentally and physically. I think we showed a lot of things.

``Now we just have to continue with our mission of taking it one game at a time. ... forget about this tournament and move ahead. We played well. You can't take that away.''

brian.dohn@dailynews.com

(818) 713-3607

CAPTION(S):

photo, box

Photo:

UCLA coach Ben Howland, second from left, and his team celebrate winning the Maui Invitational trophy Wednesday. The Bruins defeated Georgia Tech for the title.

Michael Conroy/Associated Press

Box:

USC vs. LONG BEACH ST.

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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Nov 24, 2006
Words:737
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