The UCLA Sports Information Department has decided to go for the group hug concept in arranging player interactions with the press this season. Basically, the press conferences start out with the press meeting a trio of players. This is followed by a grill session with Head Coach Steve Lavin, and then the press has a chance to go to Pauley Pavillion and conduct individual interviews with whomever they can find before practice starts (then the trick is to hide behind the bleachers and watch as much of the practices as you can until Assistant SID Bill Bennett locates you and drags you out by your ear).
The first group of players to meet the press were 6-4 senior shooting guard Billy Knight, 6-4 senior swingman Rico Hines and 6-6+ freshman power forward Andre Patterson. At first, Andre hid in the corner, hoping no one would notice him, but he was eventually coaxed by the collected reporters and SIDs into joining his teammates at the microphones (actually, I think it was Rico's growl that finally did it). The session consisted of several reporters firing questions at the players, and here's a summary of those questions, and the player's answers (If I knew the names of all of the reporters, I'd list them, but I keep forgetting who they are):
Practices are closed this year, so we don't know what's going on. What's going on, and is there anything different about this year than last year?
Knight: We've been working very hard. The conditioning is the most intense since I've been here, the whole team is in really great shape. We're injury-free, and that's different from what's gone on before, everyone is healthy. Coach Lavin is a lot more hands-on this year, doing a lot more coaching than he ever has before.
Why do you think Lavin is being more hands-on this year?
Knight: I think it's because we will be starting a freshman point guard, and also because we have a new coaching staff this season.
Hines: Coach has always been active, but I think you would say that he is more hands-on this season. We have three freshmen and they are all going to play right away, we are going to throw them into the fire really quick, so Coach is working with them a lot. Every year I've been here, it seems like there's always been something, some kind of distraction, but this year is very quiet. We have a good bunch of guys and we have a lot of fun together, and everyone is just focused on playing basketball.
Speaking of the freshmen, how are things working out with them?
Knight: They all have a really good attitude. The older guys are helping the younger guys out, showing them their mistakes, making sure they don't get down on themselves, and the freshmen are really positive. In my first year here, we had a lot of seniors, but they never talked to the freshmen. This team is a lot different.
Hines: The young guys really listen, they have a lot of respect for the older players, they work hard, they play hard, we tell them not to worry so much if they make mistakes, they will pick up the offense, and the weakside defense, the rotation, if they keep working hard. It's a long season, and you have ups and downs, and what we tell the freshmen is you just have to keep working hard every day in practice, improve every day, keep a positive attitude and the other things will come, they will take care of themselves.
Is that right, Andre? Are the seniors really helping the freshmen in practice?
Patterson: Rico is on me a lot. A lot. He is always pushing me to play harder, telling me to compete, not be timid. This is a big transition from high school, and the guys who have the experience, they have the advantages, they know all the tricks, all the little things that let them compete against guys like us even if we have all the talent. I just try to be positive and play hard, and I don't like to make Rico mad, so I am working really hard, we all are. We know this is the year where the veterans are going to be the main guys. Next year will be our turn. My game speaks for itself and it will come. Right now, the second team goes up against the first team, we press them, sometimes we beat them, so we know our bench will be strong.
Hines: I just want to add I've been on him a few times earlier, because he has so much talent, it's important for him to understand that he has to work extra hard so he can be the best he can be for the team. That's true of all the freshmen. I just tell all the freshmen to work and play as hard as you can. When you get a guy to focus on effort, that takes care of the nervousness.
How does it feel coming into a season where you are the favorite to win the Pac-10, a highly-ranked team? How is that different from situations in the past, where the expectations weren't so high?
Knight: It doesn't feel any different. Our attitude is always just to go out and play hard. Maybe it's different because our second string can beat the starters on most teams, that's something we haven't had since I've been here.
Hines: We're glad to be recognized and we're ready to handle the situation. We know that if we play hard, execute, compete, do what the coaches say, the chips will fall into place, things will work out. We just take things one game at a time. We're not looking at the rankings or the NCAA Tournament, we're looking at Houston. If we take care of Houston, we will focus on the next game. If you come out and play hard each game, not overlook anybody, good stuff will just happen. You just try and get better every day in practice, develop your fundamentals and skills, and then apply that in the games.
What kinds of things are you working on in practice? Anything new this year in the offense or defense?
Knight: Not really. We have the offense and the defense down pretty well, with all of the veterans. We're focusing more on the little things, free throws, taking charges, rotating on defense, making sure we're down and low on defense all the time. It's more like fine-tuning right now, because the guys are really familiar with the main concepts.
How is Cedric Bozeman working out as a freshman point guard?
Knight: He's doing really well. He makes mistakes now and then, but he's really doing a lot.
Last year, Earl Watson was the leader of the team. Who is the leader this year?
Patterson: Rico. He talks, and everyone listens. Billy Knight is more of a quiet leader, like the other guys. Rico talks a lot.
Hines: Well, I talk a lot because I have experience. That's my personality, I'm a talker. But as far as leadership goes, it's more of a committee thing.
Have you been doing extra conditioning for the press, and how far along are you with the press right now?
Knight: We're pretty far along, practicing it every day. With every scrimmage, we just get more comfortable with it. We really like to play the fullcourt man press. We are all in excellent shape, there's no question about it, I'm in the best shape I've been in my life. We are definitely focusing more on conditioning.