Steve Lavin held his first weekly press conference of the season last Tuesday. It was a very interesting session, in part because Lavin was present when the press had a chance to question Billy Knight, Rico Hines and Andre Patterson, and their answers to certain questions sparked some questions and answers with Lavin that might not have arisen otherwise (again, these questions were tossed out by several different reporters)
You heard the players say that you are more hands-on this season. Is that the case, and if so, why?
Lavin: I would agree that I am more hands-on this year. Billy said it, it has something to do with having a freshman point guard, and also with having two new assistant coaches. Probably I was more hands-on in my first two years here. As a head coach, I mean. Then, I started to focus more on managing the overall program, becoming more of an executive, where I was delegating certain things, I was told I needed to do that. But I think that maybe I went from one extreme to the other, I went too far in that direction, and now I'm taking a more balanced approach. Having said that, it helps a lot to have six upperclassmen, the five seniors, Jason Kapono is a junior. It's sort of like having in built-in extra assistants out on the floor.
Do you follow the suggestions of the seniors, about how they want to play, the offense, and things like that?
Lavin: No. It's not so much that the veterans make suggestions. Where you see the difference is when things happen on the fly. When the team huddles up before a free throw, on the sidelines, during the game itself, the players are reading situations and they're able to get organized for setting up the defense and offense on the next play. Having the veterans really helps with the younger players in practice. You get peer pressure, mentoring, it's a great dynamic, a great teaching environment. You guys don't want to write about this stuff, because it's not dramatic and you call it corny and clichés, but we treat practice as a classroom. And just like you might have a situation with a professor in a class, it's possible that a team, over the course of a long season, tires of hearing the same voice over and over. So, in practice, having the veterans means the younger guys are hearing different voices. That serves to better reinforce the principals the coaches are trying to teach, and it will enable the freshmen to grasp what we are teaching sooner. I like the way that the freshmen have responded to the senior leadership. I expect them to take direction from the coaching staff, but I certainly want them to listen to the advice of the seniors. You can see with our team that there's a great deal of camaraderie, chemistry, respect, it's a good sign and the older players really seem to enjoy playing with each other and with the freshmen.
Do you feel comfortable going into the season with Cedric Bozeman as a freshman starting at point guard?
Lavin: There's always going to be a learning curve. But some players are more equipped than others to make a smoother transition to college from high school. Ced Bozeman is one of those players. He has exceptional poise, savvy, the disposition and temperament to be particularly suited to play point guard. Of course, he has six upperclassmen surrounding him, so that will make things easier for him.
Billy Knight said you were going to be using a lot more fullcourt man press this year.
Lavin: That's misleading. We will show man press, but within that we are focusing on reading where to trap and zone, jump and scramble. We are going to use the exact same press we used last year, but with more depth and athleticism and quickness, we will just use it more aggressively and, hopefully, more effectively. Our depth is enabling us to be more active in our press, and I think Billy was reacting to that, rather than a change in the system we use.
How is this year's team different from last year's team?
Lavin: Obviously, when you lose a player like Earl Watson, you don't replace his courage and his durability and his stability, he played so many games for us. But we will be more successful this year with Ced Bozeman playing the point. He gives us a different look, at 6-7, he's so cat-quick, so long, athletic, he can see over defenses, run a break, create plays for himself and his teammates. He can disrupt opposing teams at both ends of the floor. On offense, he changes the game with how he controls tempo, the flow. On defense, he has the quickness to match up with a 5-10 player, but he has the size to defend a frontcourt player. As far as the overall team, our defense will be a lot stronger. We have all of this additional size and athleticism to go with our extra experience. These freshmen cover so much ground on the press, overall on defense, it's pretty amazing and we are excited to see what happens. We still have to improve our halfcourt man defense, so we're working on plugging holes, rotation to cut off penetration, we're also working on taking charges, and then boxing out to finish out a possession, closing out with getting the rebound, not letting the other team get second shots. We have to get tougher in our halfcourt defense. Not just tougher, smarter, you don't want to commit unnecessary fouls.
Will this be your best defensive team?
Lavin: I'm not sure. It's a very interesting team. If you look at the starters, you see that some of them are not necessarily the most gifted players around athletically. But they make up for that to a certain extent with their intelligence and experience. But then you look at your bench and there you see the guys with more athleticism who potentially can make the real difference on defense. Patterson, Thompson, Cummings, Hines, Young. We have a lot of versatility, athleticism, quickness, intensity, coming off the bench. So, we will go with the press fulltime this year and use that depth and versatility to make it work. You don't really want to compare teams, as a coach. The guys from your early teams read the papers and get mad if you say you like your new team better than your old team.
Talking about the press, are you working more on conditioning this year?
Lavin: I didn't think so, but then I heard Billy and Rico talking about conditioning, so hearing it from their perspective, maybe they're right. When I first started out, we really emphasized conditioning a lot, maybe at the expense of some other things, but we had a veteran team and we had two years where we were very successful. Probably those first two teams were the best conditioned of all my teams until this one. Then, my third year, we lost to Detroit in the first round. When you are UCLA and lose in the first round of the tourney, you figure you have to take a hard look at what you're doing. And we had also gotten a lot younger. So maybe in my fourth and fifth years, we worked less on conditioning then in the past and more on some other things. This year, with all of our veterans, they have a good feel for what we're trying to do on offense and defense, and the freshmen are making a good transition, and with the press maybe it makes more sense that we are working harder on our conditioning, though that can also just be that by pressing and running more, having more of a transition game and having the depth where the scrimmages are so much more competitive, our conditioning is improving from the process, rather than from a plan of special conditioning. Again, my perception is that we always work hard on our conditioning, but given our situation maybe that is how things are working out in practice.
You have to feel good about coming into the season with such a highly-ranked team. But it seems as if your teams always play their best with their backs to the wall, you win the big games against Stanford at Stanford, Arizona down here. How do you deal psychologically with being the favorite if your teams only get motivated when they are the underdog?
Lavin: I don't mean any disrespect, but I don't agree with that. This is the difference in perception between a coach and teacher versus the media and the fan. The nature of sports is that it's dramatic. Winning, losing, that's drama. That's what the fans want to read about, that's what you guys want to write about. It's also the nature of sports that over the course of the season, you are going to have stretches where you play well and stretches where you don't play well. You lose 2 or 3 games in a row, that's dramatic, too. The media wants to make it into a major story, season's over, disaster, Bruins in ruins, players give up, coach is getting fired. That certainly makes good reading for the fans, I suppose, but it has nothing to do with reality. Bob Toledo isn't freaking out, he's preparing for Oregon, and so is his team, and they're focusing in practice on all of the little things, learning from mistakes, but also just working on the fundamentals, just like they've done all season, and that wouldn't be any different if they'd beaten Washington State. Again, I don't mean to be disrespectful to you guys, because you like to make more drama then the reality, that is your job, I suppose. My whole orientation, as a coach, is on working with young people and education. If you can't deal with setbacks, you get out of this line of work. You like to think that with a more mature team, the team will be more consistent on and off the court, but something always seems to come down the road. You deal with it. It's a process that goes beyond winning and losing. This is going to sound corny, you are all going to rip me for saying these things, but I say these things because they are the truth. Boring, but the truth. I say them to my team in the locker room, they must be bored out of their minds, the most bored team in America. So, what I'm saying is, it's a process. It's a long season. We try to individually improve in practice on a daily basis. We try to learn from our mistakes. We don't dwell on a loss, we try to learn from it. We work on our fundamentals, on our skills, we have a program for the season and that routine doesn't change. That pretty much sums it up. That sounds corny and boring, but it's true. We don't run around panicking about a loss, we just break down game tape, look at areas where we can improve and then go out and every day in practice work on what we can work on. That is all you can control as a coach. I don't have any secret formula, visualization, special tactics, to motivate the team and say, "Let's beat number one Stanford." It doesn't work that way. Maybe the players get up emotionally, national TV, big game, cross town rival USC, but the coaches don't do that. Obviously, you do game preparation, but our main focus is on making adjustments, solving problems, daily. As far as motivation goes, your goal is consistency, not up and down, and that is our focus. If you guys want to write that I pulled the rabbit out of the hat, won the big game, saved my job, that is fun for the fans, but it has nothing to do with what we are working on. To say that we're at our best with our backs to the wall, that's just not true. There are big games, that is true, because of the nature of sports, but that isn't reflected in what we do, with our work as coaches and teachers, it's reflected in the external world as far as a win or a loss, and the media and the fans make of it what they want to. Every year, we have had streaks where we've played well, played poorly. That's the nature of college basketball. But if you look at our teams, I think it's pretty clear that we've improved every year over the course of the season. The year we lost to Detroit, you can make an argument, I suppose, because a first round loss is dramatic, but does it reflect what really happened in the season from start to finish? I think that overall we have finished strong, and we are better at the end of the year. Why? Because in practice we take things one day at a time, just focus on what we can do today to get better. I really like this team. We always set high goals for what we want to accomplish. The ideal is to run the table from start to finish. The reality is, you will lose some games and you might have a streak where you lose two or three. We will win some, and we will lose some. Every day, we will work hard in practice, learn from our mistakes, improve. You assume that pays off by the end of the year, but you don't focus on the future, you focus on the now in practice. That sounds boring, but that's what we do. Now, the press, that was an adjustment. We came into the season with a game plan and it wasn't working, so we made an adjustment, halftime of the North Carolina game, and went with the press. But we had worked on the press in practice, we'd used in games at times to speed up tempo if a team was trying to slow us down, so it wasn't as dramatic from our standpoint as it's been made out in the media. As a coach, you make adjustments, based on preparation. That pays off in sports with drama, with wins, with what the media and the fans care about, but that is the outside world looking in.
How are you organizing things with your staff? Who is in charge of the offense, and who is in charge of the defense?
Lavin: It's more of a group thing. I think we've spent more time together as a staff, breaking down tape, meetings, doing things more by committee, than we've ever done since I've been here. Part of that is adding two new assistants. Obviously, Jim Saia has been here 6 years and he's in charge of the offense. Patrick Sandle and Gerald Madkins have a lot to bring to the table, but really we're working on an overall basis, it's a group effort. Every one of us in involved in teaching the offense, the defense, particular skills.
Has anything happened in practice that we've missed?
Lavin: Yeah, let's get to the good stuff, more drama, all the secrets I don't want you to see. No, it's been very quiet. This is a real hard-working group of players. It's been great to see how far some of these guys have come over their careers.
That must be pretty unusual in itself, having such a veteran team.
Lavin: Yes, it's nice to know that it can still work on the highest level of college basketball, with guys leaving early, transfers for playing time, that you can still have a senior-laden team at a school like UCLA. These are supposed to be educational institutions, but you look around at Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, us, the reality is you lose players early. But you are also still seeing seniors at all these schools, guys getting their degrees, preparing for the next 50 years, not just the next 10, and that gives you a good feeling that you are accomplishing things as a coach. I know, more corny stuff. Fine, leave it out, focus on the drama.
What sorts of changes have you made to the offense? Are we still going to see the guards posting up inside, a lot of two man games, like last year?
Lavin: Yes. We are not making any major changes, but because of our experience, we can add some things, reads and counters, so our offense will become that much harder to defend. Plus, the freshmen give us options we didn't have in the past, as far as ballhandling, passing, athletic ability. TJ Cummings, too. Actually, every offense always works toward a two man game, a three man game, isolation, that's how it evolves. You work in that direction and try to create favorable matchups, that's true of any offensive system, motion, 1-4, triple post, high post. So, yes, you will definitely see two man plays, whether it's dumping it in to Dan or Jason and Matt working together outside, plus you will see us invert our guards, we have a lot of really tall guards and we've used those types of plays very successfully in the past. We have a very deep, talented squad this team. A lot of weapons. Great experience. Great size. Great talent. More athletic. I don't see how we're going to lose a game this year. Make sure everyone knows I was joking. How's this (puts on a very serious demeanor): We have lots to work on. We need to improve in every area.
This might be coming out of left field, but can you talk about Steve Spencer leaving for Orange Coast College?
Lavin: Well, Steve was the one who pushed me to put in the press last year. Actually, he's been nudging me to press for 5 years, but I didn't feel we had the depth. We'd use it in situations, to come back from a deficit, to speed up a game if a team was slowing us down, to change tempo as a sort of surprise move, but if we were down 16-6 and giving up lay ups, I'd pull back. But by halftime of the North Carolina game, we couldn't possibly do any worse than how we were doing. It was that simple. Steve suggested we press for the full 20 minutes and we did, and the effect it had, the energizing effect, it had on the whole team, offensively and defensively, it was pretty apparent, and then I made the commitment, even without the depth. I didn't have an alternative. If you are committed to be a pressing team, you have to sustain it for 40 minutes or it doesn't work. So that is what we will do this year. Of course, if we have a couple of losses early, that could all go out the window (Lavin's smile indicated that he was making a joke). As far as missing Steve overall, he had an unusual background for a Division One coach, he has a teacher's background, he had a teaching credential and started off as a teacher before he became a coach, and he came from a family with a teaching background. He's taught at high school and junior college, as well as coaching at those levels. So, he was a great teacher, very intense with a great work ethic, and obviously I will miss that.