Rico Hines has apparently been appointed as the unofficial spokesman for the team this year, and will be speaking at every press conference. Tuesday, Rico appeared with freshman swingman Dijon Thompson, and then UCLA Head Coach Steve Lavin took questions from the press. Here are some of the hot issues addressed by Rico and Dijon:
On what the coaches told the team it needed to work on, based on the EA All-Stars game:
Rico: Improving our ability to pass and catch the ball at high speeds. That, and defense.
On whether this is the best team Rico's ever played on at UCLA:
Rico: Yes. We've had a lot of talented teams in the past, but this is the best team, the most skilled, and the deepest team. It's also the nicest team, in terms of how humble everyone is. These guys are really pleasant to be around.
On big upsets in the preseason:
Rico: It's early. A lot of teams still lack chemistry at this point of the year. Our main concern is to care of Houston (odd note: As Lee Jenkins of the Orange County Register noted, Rico was wearing a Houston Astros baseball cap during the press conference). We've never won a preseason tourney since I've been here.
On (possibly) playing Duke in Maui:
Rico: People say they're the best team in the country, and of course we would like to play the best team in the country and see where we stand. But our main concern is Houston. If we beat Houston, our main concern will be the winner of the Kansas/Ball State game.
On how Dijon felt playing in his first game:
Dijon: Really comfortable. I thought I had a solid game, I could have been better.
Rico: We played well. The freshmen played really well. But we need to contain the dribble better, keep people in front of us, do a better job of contesting shots. Overall, we're pleased, the coaches are pleased, but we also know we need to get better and a lot tougher. That's why we play these games, to find out what we need to work on.
After Coach Hines left the scene, Coach Lavin took over and started out with some brief comments, without waiting for the reporters to ask him questions (really, why bother?):
Lavin: Based on the exhibition game [with EA All-Stars], we're working on improving the execution of our sets, our out of bounds plays, our zone offense, contesting shots, boxing out, quicker rotation defensively when we've been broken down off the dribble. We're looking forward to going to Hawaii. The great thing about playing in Maui is finding out more about our strengths and weaknesses, as we point to the Pac-10 race. Our first opponent is Houston; we're familiar with their coach, he was at Ball State, and with their style of play. They do a good job of switching their defenses and play a disciplined offense, they do a good job of penetrating off the dribble and kicking it out to the shooters or setting up the post people inside.
At that point, the reporters got to ask some questions. The topics varied:
On the issue of the "difficulties" presented by playing in Maui:
Lavin: Basically, there are three challenges: Playing three games in three days, dealing with the travel, playing in a different time zone, and then just playing in an unfamiliar environment. The gym is a small college, high school type of gym, very warm and muggy, a lot of moisture in the air inside the gym unless they've put in an air conditioner since we were there. It's a fun event, very well-publicized. From the coaching standpoint, as I said, playing three games in three days, having that short turnaround, you get an early look at how your players are going to respond to that sort of schedule. You also get a lot of game tape that you can break down and really use in practice to use as a teaching tool. During the season, you can sometimes go a week without playing a game and you don't have the tape to show to your players to demonstrate their mistakes, so an early season experience like this is invaluable for a number of reasons.
On how "deep" his rotation will be:
Lavin: Nine or ten. Ryan Walcott and Josiah Johnson are having trouble with tendinitis, it's affecting both of them in practice and could affect them in games. Josiah also has Osgood-Schlatter, he's grown an inch from last year and is still growing.
On who's made the most progress since last season:
Lavin: TJ, physically, he's put on 20 pounds. Cedric, since high school, as far as muscle. Pretty much the whole team is much bigger, stronger, more physical.
On whether anyone has surprised the coaches with how well they've played so far:
Lavin: No. I think Andre Patterson has surprised some of his teammates, and perhaps the fans, with how good he is, but he isn't a surprise to us. We projected him as an impact player. Cedric was the McDonald's All-American, plus he's stepping in for a senior as the point guard. That naturally lent itself to a situation where all of the media, fan attention has been focused on him. Dijon and Andre have been seen as the "other two guys." When we were recruiting them, we were equally excited by all of them, they all have their own unique set of skills and we needed to recruit people at all those positions, not just at the point guard spot.
On who will be the backup point guard this season:
Lavin: Ryan, if he's healthy. Jason will also definitely play some point guard, he can play the position and we will definitely use him there all season.
On how this team is better than last year's team:
Lavin: More depth, especially on the frontline. More versatility, we can go with very big lineups or smaller, quicker lineups. Last year's team finished very strong, so you can't say that this team is better than last year's team right now. But I like the potential of this team over a period of five months.
On how he will handle the "pressure" of being the favorite to win the Pac-10:
Lavin: There is no pressure. When we were 4-8 in conference, that was pressure. Facing the possibility of being the worst team at UCLA in 54 years was pressure. Nothing can compare to that kind of pressure. Especially not being picked to win the conference.
On whether he expects the players to be "distracted" from being in Hawaii for the Maui Tournament:
Lavin: Well, there will be a lot of watching tapes, walk-throughs, practices and then you have three games. I think we'll manage to keep them away from a situation where they're kicking back in chairs and sipping drinks with the little umbrellas in them. I still have this image: We were in the Alaska Shootout when Billy was a freshman, and he was guarding Vince Carter. We were playing North Carolina, with Carter and Jamison, and our starters were Baron, Brandon Lloyd, Earl, Toby and JR. Rico was our 6th man. Billy was our 7th man. So, he was out there as a freshman, and Vince Carter did a baseline spin and jammed on him, I think that put us down by 43. That dunk made the highlight that night on ESPN. We were all watching, and all of Billy's teammates fell down laughing when they saw it, they showed it over and over. I think we'll be ready to play.