DL: It has not been very fun to go through some of the injuries. We've had four surgeries prior to our first game. Probably the most significant would be Jon Rakiecki, he'll be out with ankle surgery, probably until January. Next one would be Derrick Stevens, who broke his thumb and will be out probably two more weeks. Then we've had a bunch of nagging things, Brian Greene broke his hand, twisted his ankle, Freddie Robinson broke his hand - both those guys are back. Brian is probably 85% and Freddie is okay. Matt Nelson has had a concussion, and now has bone chips in his ankle. We've had a tough pre-season.
RI: What a difference a year makes. A year ago at this time, it was Brian Greene and a bunch of guys no one had ever heard of. Now, people are talking about the fact that you guys have the most returning starters of anyone in the league.
DL: That's the positive thing. Practices go better, we know what's going on, we've been around the league. We know what's expected to win. That really helps. You can move along quicker. The injuries have kind of chipped away at that advantage, but once we get everyone healthy and on the same page, in a grove, I think we've got a lot of good things ahead for this club.
RI: Your schedule seems pretty favorable. You have a lot of home games early on, and when you get into Mountain West play, it's only San Diego State and UNLV that you play first on the road. Everyone else comes to Moby before you travel there. Is that an advantage?
DL: Well, you've got to play them all at some point in the conference, but it does help to get off to a good start. I think we were very fortunate to host the BCA tournament. It gave us three extra home games, which is something that generally doesn't happen. We're excited about getting a jump start on the season, playing the three straight home games.
RI: How important is the pre-season in getting you ready for the conference? Some schools – like your friends down in Boulder – load up on weaker teams, while you're playing Purdue, South Carolina, Southern Illinois, Washington State, teams like that. Last year you brought Michigan in here. These are marquee teams.
DL: Definitely. We played Southern Illinois last year, and they reached the Sweet 16. Now we go and return the game there this year. Having South Carolina here is good, Washington State from the PAC 10…we go to Purdue, and they'll come here the following year. South Florida has been a perennial post-season participant from Conference USA, and they come here after the new year, and then of course at CU (on January 7th.) I think we have a very rigid schedule. Fortunately we do have a number of home games that will help. Those games will prepare us very well leading into Mountain West Conference play.
RI: Talk about some of the teams in the Mountain West Conference. New Mexico, with your old friend Richie McKay coming in, Utah is always tough, Wyoming is outstanding, UNLV. This is a tough basketball league, isn't it?
DL: I don't know that people realize just how good it is. Seventy-five percent of the teams in the league went to the post-season, which is the most of any league in the country. Wyoming is stacked again. They've got four starters back, plus Chris McMillian, who started two years ago is back after a red-shirt year. Utah on paper might be a little bit thin, not quite as deep as they've been, but they are extremely talented, and I don't know that anybody would bet against Majerus. UNLV may be the most talented team in the league. They have some new guys, like Demetrius Hunter, a transfer from Georgetown, and they have to fit it together. They have Marcus Banks, who was the best defender in the league last year. Dalron Johnson, who may be the most talented…so, UNLV is loaded. BYU has three starters back, plus some guys coming back from missions. San Diego State has a good nucleus back. New Mexico on paper might be a little bit down, but they play seven home games in front of 17,000 people, and have arguably the best player in the league in Ruben Douglas, so I'm not feeling sorry for anyone down there. And Air Force is better. They were extremely hard to beat last year, had some great wins, and they have four starters back. I expect them to win more games this year. The league is extremely balanced.
RI: That brings us back to your club. You've got some people like Brian Greene, Matt Nelson, Andy Birley coming back, but I get the sense that you're really excited about some of your new guys.
DL: Very much so. Michael Morris has been starting for us at the point. He's the son of Chris Morris who played in the NBA for 13-14 years with New Jersey and Utah and Houston. Michael has come along a lot quicker than what we had anticipated. We knew he's be a point guard at some point early in his career, but from day one, he's been the guy we have stuck back there, given him the reps, and he's responded extremely well. Shelton Johnson also's a guy – a true freshman out of the Dallas/Arlington area – really has come on extremely well as a freshman, and is playing a lot. These are two guys who at the beginning of the year we thought would contribute, but so far have really stepped up and done even more than we had hoped. They're doing extremely well. Darien Chavis is given us quality minutes at the point as a back-up, and he gives us another dimension with this quickness. And we have nine guys back from last year, so there are a lot of really positive things with our team, and where we are heading. We're still very young. We have five sophomores and two freshman that are playing a lot…good things are in our future.
RI: Last year at this time, you were kind of searching for some leadership because you had so many new people. This year, with guys like Greene, and Andy Birley you seem to have a lot of leadership.
DL: Yea, much more. Quantone Smith has stepped up his leadership as a senior. Andy Birley and Brian Greene as well. Ronnie Clark is a year older and more mature. All those guys have assumed some leadership duties. I don't know that we have one true natural leader on the team, but we have several guys that have stepped up their games, and their leadership in that area. It's kind of leadership by committee, but just having everybody here for another year on the same page helps in just about every dimension.
RI: I know they were down a little last season, but beating Michigan when they came in here a year ago has to be something you can really build on.
DL: Fans who saw us later in the year last season got a glimpse of where we were heading with the young guys. Beating Michigan was probably one of the highlights of the season, but beating BYU at home, finishing the season playing really really strong and Matt Nelson averaging 20 points and eight rebounds the last three or four games. Brian Greene having an all-conference season. It was exciting to see how we finished the year, and then what that meant looking forward to 2002-03…which is where we are right now. Last year we saw some glimpses, but now we're seeing a lot more fruit from all that labor.
RI: You keep grinning. You must be excited about the start of the season.
DL: We are excited. It's a great group of guys, they work extremely hard. I think we are so much more athletic. It's a different Rams team than probably we have seen here in the past four or five years. It takes me back to when Milt Palacios was a senior, and Andre McCanstry, Cedric Goodwin, where we had a really good mix – we had some very good athletes, we had some experience, we had some inside guys, we had guys who could shoot. We had a very successful year that year, and this team is a long those lines. I don't think we're as mature as that team was, but a team that has different weapons at it's disposal, a lot more athleticism, and I think a lot more exciting brand of basketball than we've had here the last couple of years.