LOS ANGELES (AP) – UCLA is ready to show last season’s appearance in the national championship game was no fluke.

It sure seemed like it at the time because of a weak offense and injuries to key players. But the Bruins got hot in the regional semifinals against Gonzaga and tough defense carried them to the title game.

That’s where Florida exposed their lack of offensive punch in a 73-57 loss.

The sting has lessened, but guard Arron Afflalo is reminded of it daily in a photo on his wall showing him on the bench with his head down in the final minutes against the Gators.

“I don’t think it will ever leave until this team gets rolling and winning again,” he said.

That should happen since the sixth-ranked Bruins will rely on tough halfcourt defense again.

They lost starters Jordan Farmar and Ryan Hollins to the NBA, along with Cedric Bozeman from a team that went 32-7 and won the Pac-10 regular-season and tournament titles. Farmar, who left two years early, is playing downtown for the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Bruins have no seniors as coach Ben Howland begins his fourth season in Westwood.

“We lost a lot in the three starters that we lost,” Howland said. “This team will have a hard time being as good as we were defensively a year ago because of the length that we lost in Ryan Hollins and how hard he played.”

But they do have Afflalo, regarded as the best all-around player in the Pac-10. He led the conference in scoring with 15.8 points last season, can score inside or from 3-point range, and likes playing Howland’s brand of defense just as much.

UCLA came within 40 minutes of its record 12th national championship without small forward Josh Shipp, who played just four games while recovering from hip surgery. He averaged 11.8 points and 4.8 rebounds in those four Pac-10 games.

He’s healthy now and his all-around ability will bolster the Bruins’ offense, especially if he improves off his impressive freshman season.

“He looks great, he’s shooting the ball extremely well and he’s very confident,” Howland said. “He’s going to have a real good year for us.”

Joining Shipp in the frontcourt is Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, the Pac-10 freshman of the year who averaged 9.1 points and 8.2 rebounds. He improved throughout last season and could pick up some of the scoring load.

“Everybody got better,” Mbah a Moute said. “It makes you feel confident about this season.”

Taking Farmar’s place at point guard is Darren Collison, who gained valuable experience while averaging 19 minutes as a freshman. He has bulked up, possesses speed and is aggressive about pushing the ball upcourt.

“He’s the perfect candidate to fill that void for us,” said Afflalo, who will have to adjust to playing more minutes with Collison.

“We lost some pieces that were key for us, but Josh is a very skilled player. He can defend. Darren has athletic ability to pick up the tempo and pick guys up fullcourt,” Afflalo said. “All our big men have gotten so much stronger. We’ll still be a great defensive team.”

Afflalo could play some minutes at point guard because the Bruins have no definite backup for Collison. Russell Westbrook, one of four freshmen, is a possibility.

“Russell can do the job at the defensive end,” Howland said. “It’s whether or not he can handle taking care of the ball. We can’t afford to have a couple flippant turnovers out of inexperience.”

UCLA opens Wednesday at home against BYU before heading to the Maui Invitational.

on Nov. 20. After that, the Bruins have a favorable schedule, with eight of their next nine games at home, including their Pac-10 opener against the Washington schools. They don’t hit the road again until January.

“Our expectations are try to win the Pac-10,” Howland said. “If you do that, the Pac-10 champion is going to get a very good seed in the NCAA tournament.”



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