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Shipp, in it to grin it, has to bare his teeth now

It’s that smile.

The missed shots, missed stops and missed opportunities would be easier for UCLA fans to accept if it weren’t for that smile.

Josh Shipp, bless his 22-year-old heart, smiles innately, incessantly, indelibly.

“Life is hard,” he says, “but basketball is fun.”

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The Bruins’ most important outside shooter has connected on fewer than one-third of his shots in the last two games, yet he showed up Friday beaming.

“We’re winning, so it’s all good,” he says.

The Bruins’ best three-point weapon is 0-for-three-pointers in his last two games, and the grin remains.

“As long as the team is doing well, I don’t care about anything else,” he says.

In a locker room that has become Midwestern in attitude and East Coast in fight, Josh Shipp remains staunchly Southern Californian.

“He’s just silky smooth Josh,” says Lorenzo Mata-Real.

“I’m just real, real laid back,” says Shipp.

It was a good thing when he averaged 14 points through the Bruins’ first 28 games.

It’s been a curious thing as he’s averaged only nine points in their last seven games.

It could be a lousy thing today when the Bruins need that smile to become a glare, and laid back to become fight back.

It’s UCLA against incredibly hulking Texas A&M; in a second-round NCAA tournament game that will be slightly more.

“An all-out war,” says Kevin Love.

And the Bruins cannot win it without a Battle Shipp.

If Shipp doesn’t hit his shot, the sagging Aggies will make Love disappear under a giant maroon quilt.

“The times he’s gone through his slumps, we’ve barely won,” Love says. “In a game like this, we need for him to be hitting those shots.”

If Shipp doesn’t improve on his 20% three-point shooting in the last 14 games, the crabby Aggies will turn this into a two-hour wrestling match.

“He’s the key to their offense,” says Aggies guard Dominique Kirk. “He can be really tough to guard.”

Or, not.

Sometimes it seems as if Shipp, alone among the four original Ben Howland recruits, never quite bought the message.

He’s a sprinter, not a brawler. He wants the ball more than he wants to stop the ball. He doesn’t grapple with the game, he glides through it.

He has started more than anybody -- all 35 games -- yet he ranks sixth on the team in both second-chance points and charges taken.

“I know what people say, but this is just me,” he says. “This is just my personality, I’m not a rah-rah guy, I’m just out there having fun.”

UCLA fans aren’t the only ones who have had trouble understanding this. At first, Howland didn’t get it either.

In Shipp’s freshman year four seasons ago, Howland pulled him aside and informed him he wasn’t practicing hard enough.

“I told Coach, that’s just the way I look,” says Shipp.

Howland then reinforced his point by summoning Shipp and his mother into a meeting to recommend that he skip the season as a redshirt.

“I just didn’t think he would get much playing time,” Howland recalls.

Then Cedric Bozeman became injured, and 6-foot-5 Shipp became a starter, averaging nine points a game while becoming the best-rebounding freshman in the Pacific 10.

“Coach and I reached a middle ground,” Shipp says. “I know what he wants, and he knows who I am.”

Entering this season, we thought we knew who Shipp was. He was the scoring threat who put up 18 points in the national semifinals against Florida last season, the guy whose experience would combine with Love’s youthfulness to bring the Bruins back to the Final Four.

And, sometimes, he is just that.

He scored in double figures in 16 of the team’s first 18 games, and scored 21 points with five three-pointers in a big win at Stanford.

But sometimes, he is not all that.

Against Texas, he made only one-third of his shots in a loss. Against Washington, he missed all five three-point attempts in a loss.

He hasn’t scored 20 points in a game in nearly two months. He’s made more than two three-pointers only twice in two months.

He says he feels fine. He says it’s the defenses that are making his shot occasionally look ill.

“When we get into the half-court, teams know what plays we are going to run, and that makes it hard to get any space for a shot,” he says.

The underlying meaning there is a familiar refrain from Howland’s guards this time of year.

Jordan Farmar said it. Arron Afflalo said it.

The highest-powered Bruins shooters want to run, and feel they can never find the right rhythm because Howland prefers that they plod.

Five years later, even Howland acknowledges this can be a problem.

“The way we play, it can be hard for Josh,” he says. “It’s difficult to ask a shooter to play 36 minutes a game and bust his butt on defense.”

Others have complained. But others have triumphed.

Both Farmar and Afflalo overcame the plodding but effective nature of Howland’s offense to led their teams to the Final Four.

It is now Shipp’s turn.

Howland thinks he is ready for it.

“We would not be where we are now without Josh,” he says.

Love thinks he is ready for it. “Nothing fazes him,” he says.

When asked the question, Shipp simply -- you guessed it -- smiled.

--

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com.

To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.


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