Ben Howland's Weekly Press Conference

<b>Ben Howland</b> praises <b>Dijon Thompson</b>, <b>Brian Morrison</b>, and the freshmen, as well as ASU's <b>Ike Diogu</b>, and talks about improving his team's defense...

Head Coach Ben Howland addressed the media Tuesday for his weekly press conference.

Is this the most difficult road trip for you in the Pac-10?

"I don't think there's an easy trip, number one. They're all very tough. Listening to coaches who have been in the league a lot longer than I have, like Lute Olson and Ernie Kent, there is a lot sentiment from the coaches that this is the most balance in the league in a long time. There are just no easy wins. Everywhere it's going to be tough to win. And obviously it's no exception this coming weekend."

Are there any secrets to playing against Ike Diogu?

"No one matches up with Ike. He is without question a first-team all-american. I've been watching him on film and looking at his numbers. He leads the league in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots. He's sixth in free throw percentage at 85%. He leads the country in free-throws attempted and free throws made. He shots 62% from the field. What doesn't he do? He's passing the ball very well. He's a really, really good player. As good as he was last year, he's even better. He has nine 30-point games. He's scored in double figures in every game he's ever played. He's absolutely a great player."

Is he getting better support this year?

"I think there were a lot of young players that played a year ago. I can't pronounce the kid's name from New Mexico that starts with an 'A' (Serge Angounou), the big guy inside. Jason Braxton's a year better. Steve Moore is a year better. The new kid, Bryson Krueger, who transferred in from Yavaipai (JC), helps them. Kevin Kruger, Lon's son, is really playing well. He's a sophomore. They have a team that was very young a year ago, and they've improved because they're a year better and older. They're executing really well. But Diogu really makes things difficult, because there is not one person that can guard him. And just not on our team. That's anybody's team. He kills everyone."

How will you guard him?

"We'll start with our five man guarding him. And then we'll try to help and support as much as we can."

And that would be Michael Fey?

"Yeah. As of today."

Does Fey have any advantages over Diogu?

"No. I mean, you have to really watch film to really appreciate just how good this guy is. He's taking people and shooting turnaround jumpshots from 15 to 17 feet. There is no question that he's playing basketball for a long time. His body even looks better than it did a year ago. He is an Adonis type figure."

What do you think about Arizona?

"I'm not even thinking about Arizona. That's just typical of the way things work. All my focus is on the next opponent. The one thing I can tell you about Arizona having followed them through the league, they're extremely talented and a very good team. They won nine games in a row until they lost on Saturday at Stanford. They played a great schedule. They have a chance to really make a good run in the NCAA tournament this year, because of their depth, having improved a year ago with more players and more bigs to play."

Have you talked to the team about getting off to a better start?

"Yesterday we watched film for about an hour and forty-minutes, almost two hours, and we have to become a better defensive team if we expect to win. That's what we did against Oregon. We played good defense, and that's what allowed us to win on the road there. So far in four league games we're allowing our opponents to shoot about 49% from the field, which will be hard duplicate Ws if we continue to do that. One thing we have done in our last three wins is average just 11 turnovers. We've had 11 in each of the last three games, which has been a huge plus for us, having more possessions, because we're doing a better job of taking care of the ball."

Do you attribute that to the freshmen maturing?

"I think Jordan Farmar in particular. Our point is doing a better job in decision-making. He's had three turnovers in the last three games as the primary ballhandler. He's the guy that everything starts with in terms of our transition. I'm really pleased with that."

Will Dijon Thompson get his fingers untaped soon, or will he keep it on the whole season?

"I think he's going to keep it on. He's already had it split twice. Obviously it's not affecting his shot in a negative way, based on Saturday. I think he's very comfortable with the way his hand is, and we should just leave it."

Your team hit some important shots down the stretch against Washington. Was it a matter of them just running the offense better?

"Not really. We were making some tough shots. The bottom line is Dijon and Brian Morrison had it going. They missed one shot between the two of them in the second half, and made some tough shots. Sometime there's a player who gets it going, who has a feel, and that basket becomes ten feet wide. They both had it both really good. It was nice to have the two seniors step up and lead us."

Might Lorenzo Mata get some increased minutes?

"He's getting increased minutes. He played 20 at Oregon, and I think 19 on Saturday. Washington State was a tough matchup, because of how much they play out in the perimeter. I thought his 13 minutes were key for us in the second half. He our one big guy that can contest shots and get the rebound on the same play. He's our second-best defensive rebounder after Dijon in terms of minutes played, Josh Shipp being the third. He is doing a good job for us, learning and coming along. That was obviously a huge offensive rebound with 28 seconds to go, which put us up five. That was a great play. He had to reach back, and he's the only one on our team who could make that play.."

Is Dijon that different of a player this year?

"He's playing like a senior. You can tell he has a lot of confidence. The thing that I'm most impressed with is his rebounding. He's second in the league in rebounding. He's doing a phenomenal job on the boards. If you watch the film, he's really working hard for offensive rebounding. He's doing a great job of getting position, blocking out, and creating opportunities on the offensive glass. That's really been big for us. He's our leading defensive rebounder, offensive rebounder and he's second in the conference in rebounding. That's huge for us. He's our best player."

Did you think he could be that good of a rebounder?

"Yeah, I remember talking to him a year ago. Looking at Josh Childress, he had those kind of numbers.  He showed some of that in spurts a year ago. But now it's really on his shoulders and he knows that. He's really doing a great job. To get 16 rebounds in that game against Washington State was huge. We went back and counted and he only really did have nine rebounds on Saturday. I was hoping we could find an extra one in there, but we didn't find it."

How is he holding up defensively?

"That's another thing that's been a pleasant surprise. His post defense against bigger guys has been very, very good. Considering he's never been asked to do it before until now. He's really never been asked to play that spot. It makes such a difference for us offensively, to have him out there. It gives us a four-guard lineup. You're seeing it more and more, whether it's the Phoenix Suns or in college basketball in general, more and more teams are playing for skill than necessarily size."

Do you think he's changes some opinions of him this year?

"I would think based on watching him thus far, and especially Saturday night, yeah. I don't know what the opinion of him was before, but he's definitely playing like he has a great future ahead of him beyond UCLA."

Watching the film, what were the defensive problems?

"Just guarding the dribble, number one. We didn't defend the dribble well. They kept beating us on penetration. Our inability to extend screens. And again, Washington is a very good team. But we were also bad defensively against Washington State. We got off to a bad start in both games offensively. We either missed some shots or didn't shot fake. I thought Washington's pressure really bothered us early in that game. They got off to about as good a start as you could possibly hope for. They were making tough shots. That's what they do. They're an extremely talented team, and a very dangerous team."

Is Arron Afflalo still your best defender?

"He's our best on-ball defender. Where Arron needs to continue to improve is off the ball. He has a tendency at times to relax. But on the ball there's no question.  He's still going to continue to guard the other team's most effective offensive player who's not a point. Either the two or the three. This week it's going to be (ASU's) Steve Moore, who's a very good player and averaging 15 points a game. He's the second guy after Ike who causes you a lot of problems. He played well against us there a year ago. He's only taken six less shots from the field on the year than Ike."

Is Jordan pretty much not a freshman anymore?

"They're freshman until next year. They're gaining a lot of experience, though. He's growing and getting better, especially in taking care of the ball. Now he needs to get more consistent defending. But you have to remember, he's being asked to play more minutes than is ideal. He's second in the league in minutes per game , in the conference, as a freshman. He just turned 18 years old November 30th.  That's hard. That's a lot. His best defensive game was at Oregon, when he only had to play 29 minutes, when we played Janou Rubin 14 minutes and we bought some time for guys. That's going to be a struggle here the rest of the year. Fortunately for us, Brian has really stepped up his game these last few in conference. That's been a real positive."

Were you wondering where his game was until the last few weeks?

"I think sometimes it just goes on. A big part of being a shooter is having confidence. Once he got the first couple to go against Oregon State, his confidence has been good. The thing he did Saturday that was so good, was leaving his hand up. It was like a clinic, if you go back and watch the tape. He was really doing a good job of following through on his shot. He was shot-faking, freezing guys, with guys right on him, and at 23 feet then pulling in their face, which he's capable of doing. He has great legs."

Have you seen this in practice lately?

"He at times has shot it great in practice all year. Before the season, before we even played our first game, it was just phenomenal how well he was shooting the ball. I think sometimes he gets wound up and gets a little anxious. He's settled down now to where he's feeling good. He's also superstitious. I think he said he's not going to shave again. So he'll have a beard here pretty soon. Whatever works. He can have an Abe Lincoln beard if he plays the same way."

In the Pac-10 stats, you are ninth in defensive field goal percentage. Is that representative of where you are defensively?

"That is very accurate. That's exactly where we are as a team right now. That's what our big focus was. For an hour and forty-five minutes we spent about an hour and fifteen minutes watching ourselves defensively in the last three games. We will not continue to win more than we lose if we don't get better in that area. That's reality. I continue to bring up, who's the best defensive team in the NBA right now? San Antonio. Who's the best team in the NBA? San Antonio. In college, I pull up the top 50 teams in college basketball and the ones atop the list are Duke, Kansas, and the best teams in the counttry. That's reality."

Are you getting enough turnovers and steals?

"It's not so much that. We're alllowing them to shoot 49%. Actually, Jordan had four steals on Saturday. He's getting better at that. We just have to get better at the things we're trying to do. You're not going to see us playing zone. We're going to get better and keep working at it. It's interesting, in both those games Thursday and Saturday we were much better in the second half in terms of our field goal percentage defense. It completely turned around with Washington. They shot 67% the first half, and I think we shot 65% the second. And each team shot 40% against that."

Is the league very good defensively?

"If you look at the RPI for our conference right now, it's second in the country. That speaks very highly of our conference, deservedly so. I think we're the only team left that has a non-conference game left to play. That's against Notre Dame. So those numbers won't change that much. It will be interesting to see how the RPI works once you start beating each other up, where it goes. There is a diminishing return when you play 18 times (in conference). We'll see how that all works out."

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