Head Coach Ben Howland conducted his first press conference of the season Thursday morning.
How do you change or alter recruiting with the changing landscape of so many players going pro early?
"It's interesting. I've heard some programs are really focused more on getting four-year guys. I don't know this for a fact. I know this through a friend. For example, the Duke coach has decided they want to try to get guys they're going to have (for four years). This year they lose Shaun Livingston and Luol Deng. I think there will be more and more college coaches emphasizing, and trying to recruit kids that they're going to have for more than one year, or no years. For Memphis, I think they've had three different kids that have gone straight to the League right out of high school."
How can some programs, then, know which kids to recruit? You'd have to be able to determine who could go to the League or not.
"I think the way that things are going now is that you're going to have more of an idea if a kid is going pro as we go into this time of year, as we go into November. There are a couple kids that I know right now that are definite guys talking about coming out. I know because I talk to some NBA guys, and have NBA guys as some friends. There's a kid in Mississippi in that case who's committed to a school, and it's unlikely he'll play college, and he's a guard."
What individual players do you think will definitely be improved this year?
"I think Mike Fey is going to be better, because he's really worked hard in the weight room. Between the end of last season up to now, he's really gotten stronger. People who I know tell me, since I didn't have a real feel for him the year before I arrived, that he was kind of soft. He wasn't real muscular. He now is 273 pounds and bench presses over 320 pounds. He squats a good amount. I think that's given him confidence. I think Cedric Bozeman has improved, because Ced is stronger than he was a year ago. Probably more this off-season than any year he's ever played basketball, Ced really worked on his shooting. He's developing his jumpshot into an adequate jumpshot. Just from the standpoint of his form, and his follow-through. It's just watching him a little. I've only seen him work out like five times. We started school September 30th, which is probably later than anybody in the country."
How do you think Ced and Dijon Thompson will respond to the competition on the team this year?
"I think it's going to help them. It's going to make them better players. It's going to make their team better. The most we can do right now is go four players at a time when we work out on these individual workouts. We've been doing some two-on-two things. It has been competitive. It's been good. You can see that competition is going to breed improvement."
Are you curious as to how they'll respond to it?
"I think they'll be fine. Every starting position is wide open. There is no starting lineup set. It's all going to be based on how they progress in practice, how guys compete on a day-in-and-day-out basis, and how they perform in the games. I hope that we'll have a set starting lineup by December at some point. Just because we start a certain lineup November 5th in our first exhibition game, that doesn't mean that's going to be the same team that starts against Chicago State or Boston College."
If Ced is better at shooting, are you comfortable playing him on the wing at the same time with Jordan Farmar at point guard?
"I fully expect to do that at times. I think Ced is going to go between playing point and small forward. I think he can do both. He can guard all three positions, a two, a three or a one. He brings a lot of versatility because of his athleticism and his length. He really wants to have a good senior year. And I want him to have a good senior year. He's a great kid, and he's worked hard in the off-season. I expect with his hard work and his effort to improve in the off-season is going to pay off for him."
What's Ryan Hollins' status and how is he doing in the workouts?
"He's doing well, in terms of his knee not hampering him and not swelling. I have to give a lot of credit to Ryan and working hard in his re-hab since his operation on the 19th of July. And also our trainer, Tony Spino. Tony is back with the program now. Tony has done a magnificent job helping to re-hab him and has really been on top of it. He has not experienced any swelling. We've been conservative in bringing him back. But I expect him to go through the entire practice on Saturday and Sunday and so forth."
Has he been tentative in his play?
"No, not at all. He is a little rusty because he hasn't played for three or four months. He, more than anybody on our team, probably needed that playing time ideally in the summer, just from the standpoint that he is one of those late bloomers coming out of high school that didn't even start on his high school team as a junior. Not many players don't start on their high school team as a junior in high school and play at the high major level. So he's an exception in that respect. But he's been good, in terms of being aggressive, and he hasn't favored his knee at all. I've been very, very encouraged by it. One thing Ryan did do, though, in the off-season, is get a lot stronger with his upper body. He's benching about 280 pounds now. So I'm excited about that. It's unfortunate that he wasn't able to lift with his lower body because his lower body needed it just as much."
Have you considered what type of style you want to play, given the new roster?
"We're going to try to push the ball a little more this year because, number one, our depth in the backcourt. I think we're a better shooting team, too. A year ago we were last in the Pac-10 in three-point shooting percentage. Part of that was losing Brian Morrison in the Michigan State game December 20th with three minutes to go. He did shoot close to 45% on the season. We really missed his shooting from that range. We were also a team that didn't shoot well from the foul line a year ago. I expect we'll be able to get up and down a little bit better this year, especially with the depth in the back court."
In recruiting, do you find that recruits want to know they'll be able to run?
"That's always brought up. Kids want to play that way. We want to get up and down ourselves. But even so, every player wants to aspire to the NBA. Well, turn on the NBA playoffs and watch the games, and watch who's winning and what the score of the games are, you have to be able to push the ball at every opportunity to get cheap, easy baskets. You have to be able, though, to execute in halfcourt sets to be able to play that way. Our number one thing defensively is to force you to play in a halfcourt and not get easy opportunities in transition. Just like everybody. I was watching the Lakers and Seattle, the first game of the pre-season and I was seeing how many running opportunities there really are. The number one emphasis on defense is transition defense. That's the number one thing, starting to defend. That's what all good teams do."
Are you finding that you're getting negative recruited about not running?
"I don't think so. Not really."
What'd you think of the Pistons style?
"I thought they were a great defensive team that were great at sharing the ball and we're all about winning. At the end of the day, they have the ring. All the people that win get recognition. I was really impressed with how they played the game. I thought it was good for basketball. I think Larry Brown was absolutely right when he said that this was good for basketball. It was truly a team."
What has your impression been of the freshmen so far in the workouts?
"We haven't had that many workouts. But I have been impressed. Arron Afflalo has really shown a lot of toughness and competitiveness, and that's what I really like about him. He's got a great willingness to learn, and really wants to be good. I like that about him. Jordan Farmar actually missed the first week of practice because he had a little tinge in his thigh muscle. So Tony was very dilligent in getting him back. But he went yesterday and the day before and it went good. He had a lot of quickness. I think he's very, very smart. Josh Shipp was the same thing - he missed the first week. But he's going to be a good player. He showed how he could shoot the ball. I'm excited about Lorenzo Mata. He has a lot of things to learn, in terms of fundamentals. Like the first day, every pass he reached with one hand to get it. Nothing was with two hands. He has a lot of things to work on fundamentally. He's going to grow in a hurry. He is an unbelievably quick jumper. And really has an innate ability to follow his own shot and get a rebound on second and third opportunities."
The injury with Josh was the same as Jordan?
"It was the same thing. They both have a pulled muscle from workouts the first day."
With Fey so much bigger and stronger, what are some of the things he has to do now to be effective?
"Offensively, slowing down once he gets the catch. He still has a tendency to speed up and go too fast when he has guys (guarding him) that he's clearly bigger and stronger than. And he has to be more aggressive. He has to get a little more of a mean streak to him, to really reach his potential. I really like Mike. I really like his attitude, and how he's worked so hard get better. He had a good summer in the Say No League. My biggest thing for Mike is to focus on rebounding. I wasn't as concerned about him scoring or shooting. As you remember last year he went through three games without getting a rebound. We can't afford to have that happen. He's going to have to focus on being a better rebounder. That's something to continue to emphasize with him."
Is it possible Fey will start at center and Hollins at the four?
"Yeah, it's possible. No starting position is sewn up by any means. But right now, Hollins and Fey have a lot of experience coming back. If you remember, we started them early in the season last year when Trevor Ariza was out with a collapsed lung and T.J. Cummings was yet to be eligible. And they actually did okay."
Would that be your ideal choice, to have them on the court at the same time?
"I think that Ryan, because of necessity, will play more minutes at the four. I see Ryan, Matt McKinney and Josiah Johnson battling for minutes at the four, and Fey and Mata battling at the five. It's all subject to change. But that's the way it is in my mind right now. And talking about other positions, and Ced being able to play multiple positions. I see Dijon Thompson strictly playing the three this year. It's what he wanted to do last year, but out of necessity, because of injury, he had to play the two. He's more comfortable as a three man, matching up against three men, so that's probably where he'll play most of his minutes. Arron and Josh can play both wing positions. Brian Morrison will strictly be a two. And Janou Rubin is still here. Rubin looked good in the workouts because he's smart and he knows how to play."
Is Janou on scholarship?
"Yes. And we have all five seniors and they're all going to graduate on time this year. Three of them are graduating at the end of winter quarter. That would be Ced, Dijon and Morrson, I believe. And actually, Josiah is already graduated. He's working on a minor. And Janou will graduate in spring. And I'm really proud of that. It shows they understand the importance of education. It's UCLA. It's about getting your degree as well. We had our best quarter as a program in the last three years this last spring. I'm really pleased with the commitment of the athletic program, Dan Guerrero and the administration. We now have an fulltime academic person again, which they had at one time, just for men's and women's basketball, which even helps more."
When you look at the conference, is there an opportunity here in your second year to make a move?
"We sure hope so. It will be important for everything to come together. I like our chemistry right now. I don't think there's any question that Arizona, Stanford and Washington will be picked, in any which order, one, two and three. I understand Leon Powe won't be able to play this year, which hurts Cal, since he was the Freshman of the Year and a first-team all-league player, and the leading rebounder in the league. Oregon will be very good; they don't have a senior in the program. It will be a very competitive Pac-10. Oregon State returns all five guys. The Lucas kid is one of the top big guys in our conference. What a great walk-on to show up and say, 'Yeah, I'd like to play, coach,' and get 19 points a game and shoots 65%. That doesn't happen every day. I know how proud Maurice is of his son, since I saw him quite a bit this summer. I think a team that doesn't get talked about enough that's the real sleeper of the whole Pac-10 is USC. I look at their experience, and how good Jeff McMillian is, and how good their inside bigs are. They have the big football player kid who is just a real stud. They have the shooter. Their guard play, with both sets of twins, and not they add the freshmen, especially Gabe Pruitt, who is a very good player. They're a team that's going to surprise a lot of people. I guarantee it."
Have you talked to Marcedes Lewis at all about playing basketball?
"No. That's inappropriate. He's a football player first. If he were to come to me, that's one thing. But he hasn't. Honestly, he's an NFL prospect. He's 257 pounds. He's a great kid. I say hi to him all the time. But his future as a pro is on the gridiron and I think it's probably something he'll focus on. You know, you never know."
Do you anticipate Morrison picking up where he left off prior to all the injuries?
"He has worked very hard to get healthy in the off-season. Brian has a great attitude, and a great work ethic. That was a very serious injury, in retrospect. He is going to be a guy we're counting on to give us a lot this year. He wants to have a good year. He competes. He's a competitive kid and that's what I like most. It's funny, because we were watching the Michigan State game the other day, my staff and I. He played so well in that game. It was too bad he got hurt in that game because I think we were really starting to improve as a team at that point. But you're going to have injuries. That's part of the deal. We just hop they're minimized this year, especially when you look at our frontline. I think it's where we can least afford to have a serious injury."
With just a few weeks before signing day, are you sweating it out in recruiting?
"We're waiting on a couple of key guys. It's an every day thing. We just have to wait and see what's going to happen."
In terms of improving during the summer, did Thompson work on his defense?
"I don't know how many kids actually improve their defense in the off-season. At the Say No League, it doesn't really help in that respect. It will probably help Dijon more when he's matched up against threes than twos. But that's something he has to get better at. For him to be a real effective player, that's going to be a part of it. How well he does defend."
After he did the NBA workouts, what did you notice about him in terms of a sense of urgency in how hard he worked?
"You know, that was in the middle of June. When he came back, we had finals, and then I was no longer able to watch him work out. I didn't see him play this summer because we're not allowed to work them out."
How about when you've seen him in the recent workouts?
"You know, he was 203 pounds the other day, when I asked him what his weight was. He was 212 at the end of spring. He says he's been doing a lot of running. I would hope he can get his weight back up a little bit so he can battle, and be able to hold off on three men in our league. You're talking about Marquis Kateley, Brandon Roy...you're talking about some really good players. Malik Hairston, the freshman at Oregon. There are a lot of good threes in this league. It will be challenging."
How tough was your off-season looking back on how the season finished?
"It was not a fun finish to the season, that's for sure. You can't let it stay with you. Even when you come off a good year. That'd be the never-ending euphoria that never ends. Coming off a bad year, at some point you have to look ahead and go forward. That's what we've done. I think a lot of kids learn from our poor ending and have worked a lot harder, particularly in the weight room."
How critical is this season in making an impression on the 2006 recruiting class?
"It will be important that we show improvement. There's no question. But I'm not so much doing it for the 2006 class, as we need to do it for ourselves. But recruiting is always key. One thing we have as we look down the road the next year or two, we have a lot of playing time available. For kids who want to step in and play right away, which is every kid."
How many scholarships will you give out to the 2005 class?
"Probably three or four."
Do recruits outside of California have a different attitude about the program?
"I think they do. It's interesting in that most of us who grew up in Southern California, speaking for myself, and my era, UCLA was the epitome of it all. I've always felt that way. I've always held it in my heart. But you know, a sixteen-year-old kid, in 1995, for them they were seven-years-old. It's hard for them to even remember the last championship. And there were a number of more good years. Steve (Lavin's) team's went to the Sweet 16 five times. But it is different recruiting nationally as opposed to recruiting more regionally. It's more difficult to go out into someone else's area and get a really good player. That's the reality of it."
Do you find yourself hesitating to recruit out of the area, without as much to sell to out-of-state recruits?
"We have great television coverage. If you look at how many pros we have coming out of this program, in the last ten year period, I think it's the second most of any college program. Maybe two or three.There's a lot to sell."
How tough is it selling all of that without the wins the last couple of years?
"Every situation I've taken over it's been the same thing. The same thing was true at Northern Arizona. The same thing was true at Pitt. Basically you're selling those kids to believe in me, and believe in our coaches, our program, and the kids we have on our team. That's the number one thing."
So, how advantageous is it to be in L.A., recruiting L.A.?
"In recruiting, having a recruiting base is so important. That's one of the reasons I was so excited about this job. Kids that are good students, the type of kids we have to recruit at UCLA, typically stay close to home, stay closer to mom and dad. Kids like that come from close-knit families, and have parents that are close to their kids and involved in their upbringing and their education, and they're more likely to stay closer to home. That's why it's important that we have the L.A. area as our recruiting base. A year ago, it was an exception year recruiting. I don't think that the class of 2005 is probably near the class of 2004. And 2006 will be a better year, in the west and locally. It goes in cycles. It was unfortunate for us that the 8/5 rule was in effect last year and didn't get thrown out until April, without knowing for sure how to respond to that. And that has changed some things."
Is there talk of UCLA increasing academic standards for athletes?
"Someone told me that we turned down 10,000 4.0 students this last year. It makes it more and more difficult. We're competing more agaiinst Stanford academically than anything else. We still have a great support system. Like I said, our team GPA this past spring was the highest it's been in three or four years. I'm very confident with what we have set in place will support our players. We're very much on top of making sure they're successful. All four of our freshmen were in the summer program, which is basically preparation for college. They all passed their classes. Lorenzo Mata, for example, has ten units of college work toward graduation."
Looking at the schedule, with all of those home games, is that the intention, to get off to a good start, with continuity at home?
"You always want to get off to a good start, year in and year out. It's true for every program. We have a very competitive schedule. Playing 18 league games is something I've been outspoken about. We're the only major conference in the country that plays 18 league games. There is a mathematical formula used for the NCAA tournament. There is a diminishing return if you keep beating up on each other. I've been a proponent of going to sixteen league games, so that we can have a couple more non-conference games and not beat up on each other. It will help make mathematical sense in formulating who goes to the tournament and who doesn't. But our schedule is going to be tough, and very competitive."
Has there been any movement on going to sixteen games?
"There's been talk about it. We'll have to see. I hope so. I know that coaches, like Lute Olson, I think all the coaches understand it. What's best for the conference is to get more teams in the tournament."
Are you looking forward to going on the road in February to Notre Dame?
"It's at the end of our season. We go to Notre Dame, and we then have two games left. It's a nationally televised game. They're a very good team. Chris Thomas, he'll be al All-American. Torin Francis is healthy again. The transfer from Arizona is very, very good. They'll probably be a top 25 team."
Are you happier with the way the schedule is made up this year?
"I'm happy with only have one non-conference game during the conference season. If you remember last year, we were the only team, with the exception of Washington, that had a non-conference game in the middle of our league. When you have eighteen games, and then you try to add two more games, and you have 20 games, I think it definitely hurt us. In our loss to Washington State, we had to fly all the way back from playing at St. John's. It's not ideal. The most important part of your season is the conference season. Because that's what determines who gets in the tournament."
A year ago, did you think you'd be a little further down the road to where you wanted the program to be by now?
"It was a tough year last year. I do think we've accomplished a mindset, especially for the returning players, on what we're expecting them to do. I think last year was a very difficult year for everybody. The chemistry will be better this year I think. We are impacted by the fact we lost Trevor in late April. That was a decision I thought wasn't in his best interests. We're hoping that he sticks with the Knicks and does well for them. Looking into this year I thought he'd be on our team still and I thought it would be in his best interests to be on this team still, in trying to reach the goals he had set. I can't stay too focused about what happened last year. It's about now and what we're doing today and tomorrow."
Have you had a team like this, with this many seniors and as many freshmen?
"I haven't had that type of team, that I can remember. We have five seniors, four freshmen, a sophomore and two juniors. I think there'll be very competitive practices, and a lot of competition for playing time. You look at the perimeter, the one, two and three spots, that's going to help this team get better. If you don't have that type of competition, guys aren't pushed to their limits and don't improve as quickly. These guys, they get along fine. They're good kids. They're nice kids."