Shipp's shooting will go a long way to deciding UCLA's future

SAN ANTONIO -- Josh Shipp had a big smile on his face as he sank a variety of trick shots Friday afternoon at the Alamodome.

If only the ones a little closer to the basket were dropping for the UCLA junior guard/forward like his behind-the-back twister from half court or the back-to-back 50-footers he drilled with a simple flick of his wrist.

Shipp, the Bruins' top perimeter threat, approaches the Final Four mired in a miserable shooting slump. His return to form will be critical for the Bruins in their semifinal matchup Saturday against Memphis.

Despite being bombarded with questions about his recent struggles, Shipp's confidence was unshakable at Friday's media conferences. That assuredness comes despite hitting only 2 of 14 3-pointers (14.3 percent) in the tournament and only 19.7 percent of his 3s in the final 17 games of the season.

"It's ridiculous and just crazy," Shipp said. "I'm shooting the ball the same way I did at the start of the year. I was hitting those 3s back then and nobody was giving me advice. Now, all of sudden, you miss a few and everybody wants to tell you how to shoot. They're writing me letters ... everything is just crazy."

Streakiness has marked Shipp's shooting earlier this season. At one point, he missed 20-straight 3-pointers during a six-game period that included the Bruins' most recent loss Feb. 10 at Washington.

"It's just a slump," Shipp said. "I know I can shoot the ball -- it's just not going in for me. I'm kind of laughing at the situation. It gets kind of funny."

With that in mind, Shipp was adamant about a simplistic routine this week. There was extra shooting around his team's practices, work that has convinced him his stroke has returned, but he can't be sure until Saturday.

I always knock them down in practice. It's just been a rough time in the game. I just need to get them down in the game.

--UCLA's Josh Shipp

That's why it seemed that Shipp lingered a little bit longer outside the arc for a few extra shots Friday afternoon.

"I didn't do anything differently, it was just getting back in the gym and shooting," Shipp said. "It's felt good to get out and shoot again. I always knock them down in practice. It's just been a rough time in the game. I just need to get them down in the game.

"It's hard to explain. The shots feel good. I'm [still] shooting. Hopefully, they'll just start dropping for me."

It might be easy for many athletes to become exasperated by the line of questioning. But considering the adversity that has marked Shipp's time at UCLA, he's happy just to be playing.

His career has been put on hold recently by two surgeries, first missing most of the 2005-06 season after undergoing surgery on his right hip. Then he watched in a suit on the Bruins bench as they lost the championship game to Florida.

And three weeks after UCLA's season-ending loss to Florida in last season's Final Four, Shipp had the same surgery on his left hip. The arthroscopic procedure fixed a torn labrum and also included a removal of an area of bony undergrowth on the femoral neck.

After rehabbing on crutches for a month, he was ready to return to practice and gradually rebuild his strength.

"I've had the game taken away from me twice. It's just a blessing for me to be back and playing my role on this team," Shipp said. "I'm just having fun playing basketball."

So a little setback like a shooting slump isn't as big for him as it might be for others.

"I don't think he's struggling, but it's just his shots just aren't going in," UCLA junior forward Alfred Aboya said. "In practice he shoots well. All it will take will be for one shot to fall and the rest will follow. He hasn't lost any confidence. We still believe in him."

The Bruins have reached a Final Four ceiling that has marked their last two trips to the tournament. Michigan State was the last team to reach three consecutive Final Fours (1999-2001), with Duke (five straight from 1988-92) and Kentucky (1996-98) also accomplishing the feat since the tournament expanded to 64 teams.

Unlike those other teams, all of the previous three-time qualifiers all have won at least one national championship during their runs. Coach Ben Howland is still searching for his first, making the anxiety of winning the school's first NCAA hoop title since 1995 that much more palpable for his players.

"You definitely feel the pressure being at UCLA," Shipp said. "You go there to win national championships. Those are the only banners they hang in Pauley [Pavilion]. For us, that makes us work hard to try and win the game and try to get back there."

For them to make that next step, it wouldn't hurt for Shipp to start making some baskets -- in games rather than practices.

Tim Griffin covers college football and basketball for ESPN.com. He can be reached at espntimgriff@yahoo.com.