With speedy Darren Collison at the reins, UCLA has picked up its tempo and set off on another possible Final Four run
JUNE COLLISON was in Los Angeles last July, watching her son play in the Just Say No Classic League, when another spectator—Lakers first-round draft pick Jordan Farmar—sidled up to her and said, "Mrs. C, I'm handing it over to your boy now."
Farmar, the homegrown point guard who led UCLA to the national title game last April, turned pro after his sophomore season and left the keys to the Bruins with Mrs. C's son, sophomore Darren Collison. Collison, who averaged 5.5 points and 2.3 assists in 19.2 minutes per game as Farmar's backup last season, was regarded as a capable heir, but reservations remained: In the preseason AP poll UCLA was picked sixth—behind LSU, which it trounced last March in the Final Four.
Eight games into their 2006--07 season the Bruins were undefeated and No. 1 in both polls, and the question was, Could they actually have gotten better despite losing Farmar? Collison, a 6'1", 165-pound waterbug of a floor general who hails from the Inland Empire city of Rancho Cucamonga, has been a frenetic complement to smooth L.A. products Arron Afflalo and Josh Shipp in UCLA's backcourt. In the Bruins' first major test of the season, a 65--62 win over No. 6 Texas A&M last Saturday in the Wooden Classic in Anaheim, Collison scored 15 points. His back-to-back threes at the end of the first half—including a buzzer-beater that gave UCLA a six-point lead—provided what coach Ben Howland called "a huge shot in the arm." After the game, Aggies guard Acie Law IV described the speedy Collison as "a one-man fast break."
Collison, who was averaging 12.8 points, 6.0 assists and—most important in the defense-obsessed Howland regime—3.3 steals per game, may not run the half-court offense with Farmar's aplomb. He has, however, already surpassed his predecessor in his ability to wreak havoc on D and accelerate UCLA's pace. The Bruins were forcing 20.1 turnovers per game at week's end, up from 14.3 last season, and they'd increased their tempo by 3.8 possessions.
Speed is hardwired into Collison. His mother and his father, Dennis, left their native Guyana in the late 1970s to attend Adelphi University in New York, where they became All-America sprinters. June was ranked No. 10 in the world in the 400 meters in 1979 and ran for Guyana in the 1984 Olympics, while Dennis competed in the Pan American Games. "We knew Darren had good genes," June says, laughing.
Fortunately for UCLA, Darren chose basketball over sprinting. "The thing about track is that you run just one event," says Darren, who competed in relays in middle school but lacked a passion for the sport. "A basketball game is 40 minutes long, and things are happening every second."
At the Maui Invitational in November, Collison had eight steals in three games and was named MVP; the next week he had a career-high nine thefts against Long Beach State. During the Bruins' last workout before the Texas A&M game, their reserves struggled to simulate the Aggies' offense—Collison stole the ball on three of the first four plays. "In practice, I'll have to say, 'O.K. Darren, you can't steal the first pass,'" Howland says. "He's so good at pressuring the ball and anticipating." While Collison had only one takeaway against the real Aggies, his ball hawking helped UCLA force 20 turnovers.
Collison says his battles with Farmar in practice last season were hypercompetitive because "those were like my games." This year, while Collison is thriving in Westwood, Farmar is faring well across town, averaging a solid 6.6 points and 2.4 assists through Sunday for the Lakers. Says June, "It couldn't have worked out any better." For the prot�g� and for his predecessor.
Read Luke Winn's blog at SI.com/collegebasketball.