Competition and Chemistry Improve

Head Coach <b>Ben Howland</b> comments about how practice has been going, as does senior small forward <b>Dijon Thompson</b>. Both agree that competition and chemistry are much improved from a year ago...

Head Coach Ben Howland spoke to the media last week at UCLA Basketball Media Day.

How's practice going?

"I thought today was a very good practice. If I knew that our guys would practice so hard whenever the media is here I might change my mind about closing it to the media. In all seriousness, this was our 11th practice and I thought it was very spirited. Guys are working really hard. I really like the unselfishness. If you talk to our returning players they would echo that. This is a very unselfish group. They're playing well together and they're giving of each other. They're playing hard and I'm very, very encouraged by our first 11 practices."

Are any of the small injuries suffered so far anything to worry about?

"You're always going to have that. It's just a typical thing. Dijon Thompson hurt his finger, but he's coming back from that. Jordan Farmar is having tendinitis in one of his knees. Ryan Hollins has been fighting his knees a little bit, but has done a good job. It all comes down to being dilligent. We have a great trainer in Tony Spino. He's there from 7:00 a.m. to lights are out. They just have to get in and spend time with him. For the most part, we're okay in that respect."

How are the freshmen looking?

"The freshmen are playing really well. They're pushed hard by the seniors and it's a whole new level of intensity than high school. But they've responded and have acted very well, and I think, great thus far, in terms of learning and being contributors."

How have Cedric Bozeman and Dijon Thompson responded to the competition?

"I think Ced and Dijon have been great. They been great with their leadership. I think both of them want to finish their senior years here on a positive note. They are two of our best players. There is no question about that. They want to go out with a winning season and a good year. They're really sacrificing of themselves. They're sacrificing as much as anybody in giving of themselves. I'm really pleased with Dijon in that respect, and Ced as well."

Are you surprised by any of the abilities of the freshmen?

"We had a pretty good feeling for the freshmen going in. Jordan and Arron Afflalo were McDonald's All-Americans. They came in with a lot of hoopla, and deservedly so. I've been very pleased with Josh Shipp. He has a very bright future. And I'm equally happy with Lorenzo Mata. Lorenzo is improving day by day. He's really learning, and he's getting better and better. I'm really excited about Lorenzo's progress and his potential."

How about the team overall?

"We're really excited about our team right now. I'd like a little more depth up front. We have five players there. As long as we stay healthy, then I feel good about our team and our chances."

Has anyone surprised you with what they've done in the first two weeks?

"I would say the guy that has been the biggest surprise has been Matt McKinney. I think Matt McKinney has done a very good job. He's definitely, after 11 practices, played himself into an important role on our team this year."

What does he bring to the team?

"He plays a lot of different roles for us. He's a good screener, he's a good rebounder, he blocks out, he runs the floor, and he's playing good defense. He's competing. We need that. I also thought that Ryan Hollins had one of his best practices today. Ryan is going to continue to get better and better. It's hard when you have a six-month hiatus to come in and be sharp. Today was his best practice of the year, and I was happy about that."

Are you close to formulating a starting five?

"No. We're still a ways off to announcing a starting five, and then it can always change, based on performance. Hopefully we'll get to something consistent by the time December rolls around, and we'll have a rotation. To me it's not always important who starts, but who's finishing games."

Are you going to start cutting back on practice intensity as you get closer to the season?

"We probably won't until we get closer to the week up to Chicago State. We want to continue to practice hard. With stretching today, we went about 2 hours and 40 minutes or so. Normally I don't like to go that long, but we were learning so many new things. We did a lot of skill things, and a lot of shooting."

How has Brian Morrison been shooting?

"He has been very consistent with his shot. When he's open he's going to knock down the majority of his shots."

What has the competition done in practice?

"It raises the level of intensity on a daily basis. You all saw it today. They were competing pretty hard. It's fun. Guys are going to get a lot better a lot quicker when you have such competition for minutes. They keep pushing each other, and they're doing it in a positive way."

Is that the biggest difference between last year and this year - the competitiveness?

"That and our chemistry is really good. I think these guys really get along and like each other. I think the seniors have been great. They're doing a great job of leading them. They've been very, very unselfish. There's no one out here that I say has been selfish. I don't know if I could say that last year."

How about the difference in outside shooting?

"We're a better shooting team, with the addition of Farmar and Afflalo, and the improvement of Ced in that area, and with Shipp, and with Morrison healthy. We're a much better shooting team, and obviously we needed to be, based on last year's numbers."

You were running Bozeman and Farmar together in the backcourt in practice...

"That's going to happen. It won't be the last time you see that. They're going to be very good together. Ced's really going to have an advantage playing against small forwards and two guards when he moves to the wing, because of his quickness and his ability to fly by people on the drive. He did it in practice a couple of times. When he catches it (on the wing), anytime he had anyone of equal size, he was just going by them and laying it in. He's now really finishing strong to the basket. Ced has really improved a year ago to right now.  That's a tribute to his work ethic."

Is it also attributed to him being able to work out this summer compared to last?

"Yeah, that too. I think more than anything it's the hard work ethic and being really motivated."

Some comments from senior wing Dijon Thompson...

How has it been playing with the bandage?

"Frustrating. I have these stitches in my hand that makes it hard to shoot. I have this little padding in there. I'm dealing with it the best I can, but it's still frustrating."

Has it altered yourt shot?

"Yep. I'm pretty much shooting the ball with my finger tips. It's kind of hard. I'm looking forward to getting them out November 1st."

How did it happen?

"I remember the exact play. I was just reaching for the ball, and I don't know if my fingers got caught on a jersey or someone's arm, but I just jabbed so hard that the fingers split, and it split the web between my fingers. I heard that happened to Earl Watson when he was here."

Weren't you not supposed to shoot with the stitches?

"I was sitting on the sideline for two practices and so anxious to get out here that I had to find some way for Tony Spino to get a pad to absorb the shock. So, it's doing that, but it's still altering my shot. I just want to be out here."

Will it affect your stroke?

"No. I even asked Coach if it was worth it to come in the morning while I have this pad to get some extra reps, and he said no, because I'm not going to be playing with this pad. But it's not going to affect my shot. As long as I keep my form the way it's supposed to be, I'll be allright."

Having lost a little weight, are you going to try to put some back on for the beginning of the season?

"You know what? It's all mental. I'm in the weight room right now. With my body structure, I don't think it's made to be all big and bulky. I did lose some weight, running a lot, trying to get myself in shape. That's paid off. I'm trying to play bigger. I'm able to go against Ryan Hollins at the four. I just have to use my body and play stronger."

How much do you weigh now?

"I weigh 205 now."

How is the overall chemistry?

"We're getting along really well. Everybody is very unselfish. You can't as for more than that. Everybody is here to win. It's really fun. It makes it competitive and fun."

What are you looking for in your senior season, considering everything you've been through here in your four seasons?

"Well, if I could go back in time, I don't regret anything that's happened here.  This last year, I'm going to make the best out of it. I'm going to finish on top. That's just one of my goals, to finish with a bang. Ced and I worked really hard over the summer to prepare ourselves to achieve that goal. It's looking really good so far, especially with the freshmen helping out, and the returners. I think it's going to work out for us."

After Morrison went down last season, you were really the only perimeter shooter. How do you like having other shooters to take the pressure off you?

"It always helps. Like I said, as a senior, I was prepared to do anything I can. I'll play the five. I just want to be on the floor and playing. I'm at the three spot this year, and I'm going to crash the boards and get a lot offensive boards and putbacks, so that's fun."

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