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Collison Creating Options With Steady Improvement

Times Staff Writer

He dribbles the ball a little high, inviting defenders to stick a disruptive hand in there. And his coaches winced some when they first saw the unorthodox launching point for his shot, the ball cocked almost behind his right ear a la former Laker and Bruin Jamaal Wilkes.

But it’s opposing defenses that often wind up wincing when UCLA freshman Darren Collison lets go of the ball.

It wasn’t Jordan Farmar or Arron Afflalo, the Bruins’ starting guards, who led UCLA in scoring against Arizona in Friday’s Pacific 10 Conference tournament semifinal at Staples Center. It was Collison, who had 15 points and continued his season-long development at point guard.

Collison’s confidence seemingly is growing right along with the importance of each game as UCLA heads into its NCAA tournament opener Thursday against Belmont at San Diego State’s Cox Arena.

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It’s always a big leap between high school and college. When that leap involves landing in a major-college program and being asked to assume the role of point guard, the most demanding position on the court, that gap can be a chasm.

And so it has been for Collison, for whom the game in his first days as a Bruin was a blur, a much quicker game with bigger, stronger players than he was accustomed to seeing at Rancho Cucamonga Etiwanda High.

But now, the game has slowed for Collison, who is better able to maintain some control over the flow both offensively and defensively.

“I’m playing a lot more under control,” he said. “I didn’t really fully understand my role at first. There is so much involved at point guard. But as I would make a mistake, I would focus on it and try to stop making that particular mistake. Then I would make a different type of mistake and I would focus on that and try to eliminate it.”

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Said Farmar, the Bruins’ floor leader: “The first couple of days you are at UCLA, you realize you are not playing in high school anymore. But you get used to it. I am proud of what Darren has done, how much he has improved. He’s so quick that he can really apply pressure to the other team.”

With Collison excelling at the point, Bruin Coach Ben Howland can feel more confident giving Farmar a breather or using him at off-guard to take advantage of his shooting ability. Collison, Farmar and Afflalo are also on the court together more often, with Afflalo at small forward, if UCLA needs instant offense or more quickness on defense.

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Wednesday practices at Cox Arena for the eight teams beginning NCAA tournament play Thursday will be open to the public. UCLA will practice from 2:15 p.m. until 2:55, Belmont from 12:45 p.m. to 1:25.


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