Do you have a pretty good idea of what you have in personnel?
"The only player I didn't get a feel for last spring who was in the program, other than Trevor Ariza, who is our only incoming freshman, was Cedric Bozeman. He was recovering from shoulder surgery and wasn't able to do anything last spring. I feel like I have a good handle of what we have to work with. We have 11 players on scholarship. One of them has been injured this whole fall, Matt McKinney, since we started September 27th. It's not serious, but he hasn't done anything yet. T.J. Cummings, as you all know, is ineligible. If we had a game today, we'd have nine guys on scholarship able to play."
What's McKinney's injury?
"He had some kind of tendon in his foot that he hurt last spring. It's just something that he stepped on it wrong the very first day of workouts and he's been out ever since. From what I know, he should be able to go by practice, which is Saturday (Oct. 18th)."
What's your impression of the talent on your team for this year?
"We are a very young team. We have two seniors in the program, Jon Crispin and T.J. We're a team that has a number of good athletes. I like the athleticism of Bozeman and Trevor, and Hollins is a very good athlete. Those three guys in particular are very athletic. I like the fact that Dijon Thompson has the ability to put the ball in the basket. I think Fey has made good improvement. He's one player that both last spring and this fall has shown steady improvement, and we're pleased with how he's come along. There's not a lot of depth. Like I said, if we had a game today, we have only nine guys on scholarship. Janou Rubin has actually done a good job as a walk-on and will be our tenth guy."
What do you think about recruiting Southern California and can you get the players you need to win from the area?
"I would say that the class this year was a very good class (2004 class). I don't think next year's class is nearly as strong as this year's class, both from a regional standpoint as well as a national standpoint. I think the sophomore class is a very good class this year. The one thing that is nice for us is typically from year to year there is a good amount of talent in Southern California. Although I can't be specific, in our recruiting efforts, every kid we've received verbal commitments from is from Southern California."
Is recruiting Southern California key to your success in the future?
"That's exactly it right there. We want the local kids to stay home. Our pool of recruiting is actually much smaller as it is for some schools. We just can't anybody. As I've mentioned before the incoming freshman class this year at UCLA has an average of a 4.24 GPA and over a 1335 on the SAT. So it's critical that we get student athletes that can compete with the kids that are at UCLA academically. It really is tough."
What are your thoughts on whether T.J. Cummings will return?
"I'm optimistic. I'm hopeful, but there are no guarantees. Because of privacy issues concerning is academic records, I can't speak specifics. But I would say that it's going to be very, very difficult for him, considering the rigors that he's going to have to deal with to pass the classes need to pass the classes to be eligible. In other words, this is not a slam dunk or a given. He has to get a lot of work done in order to make it.
How will the academics of the team be different now?
"We've instituted one change, at least. In the past UCLA has used ‘checkers' to go check on the athletes to see if they're in class. Our staff does it now. I want our players to know that we care, number one, and number two, there isn't going to be any, ‘He didn't see me.' We know who you are and we're checking every day, in all their classes to make sure they're in class. They have a required study hall. And T.J. has done a good job so far. He's doing all the right things thus far in his classes. But it's early."
What happens if he doesn't come back?
"It'd be tough, because then you would have four of your top six players gone from last year's team that won 10 games. Andre Patterson, Jason Kapono, Ray Young and T.J. Cummings. At the end of the year those were four of your top six."
You've emphasized weight work. Have you been satisfied with how the players have responded?
"I've been very pleased with Cedric, number one. One of the great positives in lifting weights is that it cuts down on your chances of injury. The stronger you are the less chance of injury you're going to have. And he's really worked hard at it. Someone asked what I thought of him, and I'm very excited about Cedric, after working about him for the first two and a half weeks. I think he has a chance to be a very good defensive player, a very good defensive rebounder, he sees the floor, he's a good passer, he has a good attitude, he's coachable. I'm really excited about him. I think Dijon has done a pretty good job with his weight training in the off-season. They have the opportunity to play with pros during the off-season because most of the time the pros are on our campus. This year, because the Men's Gym was being done they were done at a junior high in Santa Monica. They were playing down there. I really emphasize to our guys how important weight training is. The stronger you are the better it is to be successful. Dijon was telling me he was playing against Corey Magette, and he's right there with him, but he couldn't do anything because the guy's stronger. So it's good for him to recognize that. I think he's really worked hard and will continue to do so. Fey has done a good job in the weight room. The two guys that need it most for us, and it could be tough for them in getting beat up physically, is Trevor Ariza, who is 6-7 and 196 pounds, and Ryan Hollins, who is 6-11 ½ barefoot. We'll list him at seven feet this year, in shoes. He's 220 pounds. To give you an example, last year at Pitt we were 280, 265, 245 and 250. Those kids would love to play against skinny guys."
Will Bozeman be at the point guard position?
"Yeah. Cedric and Ryan Walcott will battle for the point guard position. Those are the only two guys in our program that will play point, unless we have some kind of injury forces us to push someone else there. They're the only two I see.They've both had experience and have played it in the past. We'll have them go at it quite a bit and see where it goes."
Are the starting positions up for grabs?
"Anyone could start at this time. There is no set starting lineup. I want the team to know it's very wide open. Anyone can step up and start. It's based on how you play in practice, that will determine how much playing time you'll get in the games. All the cliches you get tired of hearing: You play in practice how you're going to play in the game. That's exactly how I feel. I expect a great intensity level. I expect you to compete in practice just how you're going to compete in a game. Sometimes it's tough for kids to learn and get into that. That's why we won't have super-long practices as we get going, because I think by the time we start playing games in December, practices will be two hours or two hours and fifteen minutes. Because you have a high intensity level and playing very physical and very hard every day you can get a lot done in that time."
Did Sonny Vacarro have a big influence in your hiring?
"I think so. This was a decision made by Dan Guerero, our Chancellor, Albert Carnesale, and Betsy Stephenson was also involved in the interview. Those were the three people that were truly involved in my hiring. Obvioulsy Dan, as athletic director, was the one doing all the research as to who he would identify and go after. The fact that I have a good relationship with Sonny, he likes me, and we go back years is obviously a positive thing. He runs one of the two most basketball camps, in terms of the ABCD Camp, as well as the Big Time in Vegas. He's well known in all the circles of AAU basketball. But I don't think he named me as the coach." What are your goals for turning around the program this year?
"I'm so excited about this opportunity. I understand what an honor and privilege it is to be the UCLA basketball coach. It truly is. I'm so honored and so privileged and lucky. This is a dream for me to be the UCLA coach. How many people actually realize their dreams professionally, and get that job they wanted and never thought possible? Ten years ago I was starting out as the head coach at Northern Arizona. If you had told me ten years ago, ‘Hey, Ben, ten years from now you'll be the head coach at UCLA,' I would have said, ‘Yeah, right.' But fortunately things have really come full circle for me. I'm excited about the opportunty to build this program. I think we can be competitive this year. I think this team is going to work really hard. These kids really want to win. We're going to have to play a style that is conducive. In terms of my goals for this year, we want to establish how we're going to play each and every year. Number one, we're going to try hard to play good defense and make it hard for you to score on us. Both in our transition defense and our half-court defense. We may have to play some zone this year. I'm not a big zone guy, but I've learned you have to do what you have to do to win now. So we'll play some zone this year if that's what gives our team the best chance to win. Because of foul trouble situations or injuries, or depth, there may be a number of good reasons. But typically speaking we're going to be a man-to-man program. Offensively I'm big on trying to get easy, cheap baskets in transition. We'll be trying to push the ball, and get easy baskets on second-shot opportunities. But we have to be able to execute, take good shots and play unselfishly."
Have you watched film of last year's team?
"I really tried hard not to watch too much film. I didn't want prejudice myself from watching last year's film and how I would feel about our players. I have watched a little bit. I watched the San Diego game the other day. I told some of the players that. I watched from a defensive standpoint, things we need to do. But last year is over. The past is done with. When I took this job, from this point forward is what matters. I did watch to get a sense of what they know. I'm not really looking to last year but now starting from step one. We've started from teaching the very basics. When you're in a program three or four years and the kids have been there it's key to having continuity. A kid, when he's a freshman, comes in and he's learning to do the same things year after year by the time he's a senior he really has a good feel for what the system is and what you're trying to do. I think it's very very important to keep consistent in a general sense in how you play and what you do for a kid to continue improve in that program."
Will you run a structured scheme offensively?
"We run a lot of set plays. We'll probably run thirty or forty different set plays in the motion. We try to take advantage of players' strengths. If you look at our team a year ago at Pittsburgh, Julius Page had a lot of one-one-one opportunities to create shots for himself because he can do that. It's not equal opportunity. Your best players on the offensive end of the floor will take the best shots. That doesn't mean they're the most important. Jaron Brown might have been our best all-around player last year at Pittsburgh, but he didn't take the most shots. He might have been the biggest reason we won other than Brandin Knight. People are so into who scores the most points. We want to have good balance. I like to have five, six guys in double figures. That'd be an ideal average. We just have to see. When you ask with what we'll miss with T.J., the one thing about T.J. brings most to the table is his ability to shoot the ball. Dijon can shoot, and then I think T.J. is the best shooter after him on the team. Maybe Brian Morrison. It is important to put the ball in the basket."
What's your opinion of Brian Morrison so far?
"He really wants to be a player. He has worked hard in getting involved in pick-up games. He's always there trying to play. He has a good attitude about wanting to be a good player, and working real hard. He's very athletic, and explosive, and I think he can shoot the ball. He just has to work at playing at different speeds. Right now he's at one speed, 110 miles an hour. That's the only speed he knows. He has to learn pace. He has a lot learn, but I like him and he's definitely going to play for us this year."
In watching the San Diego tape, what were you observations about the defense?
"They started out in a zone as their primary defense. We'll always start out in man. Almost always. Actually when we played Georgetown for the last couple of years, we played zone, because I didn't think they attacked it that well. On the tape, I just watched to see how they did defensively, were they extending screens, how they played. Just to get a feel for where they were a year ago at this time in their first game. And really, too, when you look at that game a year ago, they played a lot of different kids in that game. Fey came off the bench, Hollins, Crispin. They must have played 10 or 11 guys in that first half. We'll probably play eight or nine kids, max."
What position will Trevor Ariza play?
"He's going to have to play some four for us early, for sure. The two exhibition games and then the first three or four games. We'll have a better feel of whether T.J. will be with the team at that point, but he's going to definitely play a lot of minutes for us at the four spot this year, which is going to be hard. He weighs 196 pounds, and he'll go up against some guys, like Michigan State, that have big bodies in there. He'll be in for a good learning situation."
Will Ryan Hollins play the four?
"The problem there is, I anticipate with those two young big kids, is foul trouble. It's always going to be a problem. And Hollins is more of a five right now than he is a four. He's never played the four. A four in my system is someone who can step out, face the basket, get open and get catches, reverse the ball, really be a good passer, and have ball-handling skills like a guard. So it's like a difficult position. Trevor will be very good from all of those standpoints. My only concern with Trevor is how he's going to guard big, strong, 230-pound bulls inside. We'll have to make adjustments on that for how we're going to help him, whether that's doubling, or covering down. I really like Trevor's toughness. I think he brings a sense of toughness to the game. He's very competitive. He really wants to play and he's used to winning. His team in the Say No League this summer with Dijon won the league. Winning breeds winning. Guys who are used to winning, those guys are good to have."
Do you have a model of another coach or program you might use to re-build UCLA?
"Not really for me. I have a system. I've been to two other programs that were down and out, and they didn't have the tradition of a UCLA, which only maybe two or three schools can claim to have this tradition. And I've built programs back up and sustained themselves. I feel like I have a good background to build a program. I can't comment in specifics, but the key to being successful is recruiting. And thus far I feel very, very good about how your recruiting is going. The future lifeblood of the program is based on recruiting."
Is there a contradiction between wanting to do things the right way for the long-term and wanting to win right now?
"We try to win the game. The only difference there is – are we going to zone? Maybe in a year from now when we have more depth we can do a few different things offensively than we'll be able to do this year."
How important is this season in terms of recruiting?
"In terms of your won/loss, it's always important. What kids want today is the opportunity to come in and play right away. That's what's important to them. They know that UCLA is on national television. This year seven, eight times, on CBS and ABC. They know that this is the greatest tradition in basketball, UCLA basketball. I think the key is I have a great staff: Donny Daniels, Ernie Zeigler, Kerry Keating, Chris Carlson, Doug Erickson. They're working very hard at recruiting because, again, that's key."
Do you want to add another commitment?
"We'd like to add another big if we can."
Do you have the scholarship available?
"Yeah. You know, when we come to that bridge we can talk about it. Because it may or may not happen. We identified one prospect that we wanted as a four man and didn't get him. We're going to look for another big and it may or may happen."
Will you look overseas?
"Yeah. There's a possibility of looking everywhere. Anywhere. The thing about overseas now, if you went back seven years, Dan Gadzuric and Jerome Moiso would probably never be at UCLA. They'd be going straight to the NBA. Those kids now, six years later, are going to the League. The NBA, in many ways, is going overboard in terms of signing kids from overseas. You don't see kids from Europe coming to college like they did ten or fifteen years ago. They're staying on their club teams and trying to get in the NBA when they're 18 and 19."
It had been said that the current players could be in for a shock when practice starts... "You'll have to ask them. They'll be fine. The bottom line, though, is that the kids returning to the program, all but one, Trevor, won 10 games last year. It was not a fun thing to be a part of. Winning is what most of these kids have been used to their whole lives. No one wants to lose, so they're going to be willing to prepare and get ready to win, and be unselfish. When you look at our individual workouts, Fey and Hollins have been great; Dijon and Ced have been outstanding; T.J. and Trevor have been very, very good; Morrison has had a sprained ankle, but he's been very good when he was out there. Those guys have worked hard so far and they're doing a good job in the weight room."
Will Morrison be physically ready to practice?
"I think so. He hasn't gone at all this week, but I'm anticipating he'll be able to practice. He has a sprained ankle."
What's your opinion of your non-conference schedule and the Pac-10?
"The schedule is really, really difficult. When you look at our schedule, it will be among the five or six most difficult in the country. Just look at the pre-season magazines. Michigan State is ranked as a top two team. They're picked to go to the finals. Michigan is an NCAA tournament team. We have to play them on the road. They'll be a Sweet 16 team. Same with Notre Dame. Obviously Kentucky. St. John's is always going to be good, especially when you have to go to the Garden. Those five teams, plus the four other non-conference teams: Santa Barbara and Vermont are picked to win their leagues. Loyola and UC Riverside are going to be much improved. There are no gimmes. My attitude for everybody is respect everybody and fear no one. In terms of the Pac-10, it's a great league. You're looking every year that four or five teams get in the tournament. Arizona should be picked to win it again. Stanford is right there. They have everybody back from a team that won 24 games. They're very, very physical, with great size. I think Cal will be very good. They have a very good freshman point guard coming in (Ayinde Ubaka) and one of the top ten big kids in the country, (Leon Powe). Oregon and USC will be very good. Arizona State is coming off an NCAA tournamet with a consensus All-American inside. So, it's going to be very tough. And Dick Bennett at Washington State changes things. That's going to be a very difficult W for anybody to get when you play his teams, with their style of play and how well-coached they'll be."
Do you think you can improve defensively and in rebounding from last year?
"We'll definitely be a better defensive team. It's going to be a point of emphasis on every possession. In every practice and every game. We'll be a better rebounding team. It's just going to be a big emphasis. There are just so many things you can emphasize, and those are two of the biggest things. Contest every shot. Play good position defense. I'm not a big gamling guy. We want to play good, smart, percentage basketball. When you look at the good teams year in and year out, they're the teams that hold their opponents to 40% or there about in shooting defense. The two best teams in this league over the last decade have been Arizona and Stanford. They're both consistently the best defensive teams in this league year in and year out. There's a correlation between field goal percentage defense and the winningest team."
Will going for the steal be a part of your defensively philosophy?
"Steals are fine, but that doesn't mean you're playing good defense. At Pittsburgh, Kelly Taylor told me he was a great defensive players because he has so many steals. He was one of the worst defensive players I had ever seen because he gambled on everything. He got a steal every once in a while but he gave up twice as much as he got."
In recruiting, do you have to inform kids of UCLA's tradition or do they know about it?
"Kids understand it. When you walk in that building, first of all, and see those banners, there's only one program in the country that has eleven of them. UCLA still has a great name in college basketball. Granted, we've been to one Final Four in the last 20 years. That's something we hope to change here. But kids definitely know. When you talk about recruiting Southern California kids, all the parents of those kids remember, because they were my age walking those KTLA replays, when the Bruins were the dominant force in athletics in college basketball."
Do you have a sense of where you are with the program and where you want to go?
"We know where we are. We have one direction to go. Back up."
Last season, there wasn't much support from the fans at Pauley Pavilion. Do you think UCLA basketball fans will give you a honeymoon?
"I think the UCLA alumni are known for great patience. (Long, intended pause). They'll be very understanding. Actually I've spoken to a lot of alumni groups and that's one of my jokes. I think people will be patient, though, I really do. There's a sense of optimism whenever you have a change. And I have a track record. I've been a head coach for nine years at the Division 1 level, which is actually more than the other head coaches they've hired here in the last 50 years or whatever it is. I'm confident that, given the time, we're going to get it done. Dan Guerrero has been great in terms of providing the resources to hire a great staff. Everybody there is very supportive: Albert Carnesale, Pete Blackman. Everybody is on the same page. I feel very confident we're going to get the job done."
When did the euphoria of getting hired hit the reality of the job?
"Pretty soon. Pretty fast. There is so much to be done. I feel very confident, in terms of our recruiting, that we've been received really well. We worked really hard to get the right kind of kids who are both very good players and very good students and will fit in well. The goal for the program is, year in and year out, be competing for Pac-10 championships. And if you're able to do that you're going to get yourself a good seed in the NCAA tournament."
Is it good for your program that USC's basketball program is now stronger?
"One thing that is tough about that rivalry what I'm not excited about: That's your week off, and we're always playing games during those two weeks. I've talked to officials at school to try to get us to cut down to only one game. But I have great respect for USC, and their tradition of basketball. They've had a lot of great players. I'm sure it will be fun because it's the two L.A. teams playing."
Are practices closed to everyone?
"Practices are closed, to everyone. The media, the fans. I look at it as kind of my classroom. I don't want any distractions. It's not uncommon."
What will you do to try to instill a homecourt advantage at Pauley Pavilion?
"The one thing they're doing is bringing the students down from up above to straight across the benches, to create a better atmosphere in that respect. I'm hoping someday that we can remove the wasted space behind each basket and put students there. It's difficult because of the slope as to how you can do that. But there are things being looked at to do that. We need that. It creates atmosphere that all the alums who come for years to get excited about. This is for the students. College is. This is for the students and the student-athletes first. I really promote that and feel that's how it should be."