Head Coach Ben Howland addressed the media Tuesday in his weekly press conference.
Could you talk a little bit about USC?
"I'll tell you what, Gabe Pruitt, for starters, is playing incredibly. He's shooting 49.4% from three in the conference, and well over 50% over the last six or eight games. He's a very good player. We knew that the first time we played him. And Nick Young had an incredible game against us. Jeff McMillan had a good game against Cal. He had 19 and 11 in that game. Her was a big force last year. He's a load to handle. So they've played well. They played Stanford well. It was a three or four point game with three minutes to go. This is a very talented team we face on Thursday. There is a lot riding for both teams. They're trying to get in position for the Pac-10 tournament. They know if they can get their last three wins they have a good shot at it mathematically. So we will get obviously a great effort from our opponent on Thursday. And we have to be equal to that intensity level to win."
Does it concern you that your team has had a relatively tough time putting two road wins together?
"Road wins are always hard. In any top flight league that you're in, the ACC, the Pac-10, the Big East, road wins are difficult. I think we ended up 5-4 on the road, and for a young team that's not bad. I'm disappointed we didn't win two in a row. We had our best shot, if you look back, on the Arizona trip. We had a great trip to win that game in Tucson, but let it slip out of our grasp."
Do you think USC is rejuvenated now? That they had given up a little bit before, with all the turmoil, and now are playing harder to get in the Pac-10 tournament?
"They have very good players. I think Jim Saia's doing an outstanding job, especially when you consider all the swirl of coaches being hired. We're still in the middle of the season. That's actually rare the way that all occurred. Typically you're not hiring a coach two months before the season is over. I'm sure it's been a little different from that aspect. The bottom line is that they played very well in their last game and I think on their last road trip. We have to be ready for a very difficult game here Thursday."
Do you look at the three conference games coming up as must-win games?
"I look at every game as a must-win game. Not just those three, but the game on Sunday as a must-win game, and the game on Thursday as a must-win game. That's not anything new. Every game we play is a must-win game. Unfortunately we don't always get what we want and win every game."
It seems like some of the younger players on the team are talking about winning out in the Pac-10. Are they focused on the Notre Dame game?
"I think they're focused on the game ahead. I think sometimes all the talk swirling around them maybe leads them to talk in that manner, because they're led by questions along those lines. There is a lot pointed that way by questions being asked. It's natural. It's a natural question, and it's the expectation that you're going to have those types of questions being asked of these kids. But yeah, I think they were pretty good last week in being focused on the game, and especially Thursday against Cal."
Did they play with the kind of urgency you wanted on Sunday?
"When you go back and review the game film, as I always do, it's part of the routine, we took the lead 23-18 and then took a horrible shot. We had the lead 23-19 and took a horrible shot, and really helped fuel them getting back into it and taking the lead. I talked about that a lot. We're going to watch those shots as a team today to continue to try to get that understanding of exactly what I'm telling them. Bad shots lead to bad things. Shot selection. We watched it after the Arizona game and I thought it really helped us. The way we played Thursday against Cal was really, really how we want to play. The defensive intensity, sharing the ball, making the extra pass, playing smart."
What do you have to continue to do to be successsful down the stretch?
"I thought we made a step forward last weekend in getting the ball inside. I think we did better at that than what we had done. We have to finish better when we get inside, and take advantage of those opportunities. We had some opportunities early in the Stanford game when we missed some point-blank lay-ups. We would hope we would be able to make more than we miss. Overall that's a big part of it. And just being consistent with our defense. When we doubled the post on Sunday it never hurt us once. What hurt us more than anything was Chris Hernandez. He is a great player. You have to tip your hat to good players. He's a fourth-year player in this league and he was in my estimation the best point guard in the league and I have no reason to change that opinion of him at this point."
"We need those guys to be healthy. That would obviously help. Our number one focal point is still going to be in terms of offense getting the ball to Michael. I had him in today watching some film of himself, to help him improve the things he needs to work on. Following through on his shot. A lot of times on Sunday, he shot the ball from four feet, and his hands are already down as soon as the ball hits the rim. He's doing it so quick. He has to recognize that and stay with his shot longer. So it was good for him to see that today."
Does he get it when you watch film with him?
"Yeah. I think this will be helpful for him today. We talked about it before, but we sat and watched it today, so he'll have a good feel for it going into practice."
How has he done looking for others and passing the ball out of the post?
"I think he's done a pretty good job of that. A couple of time I think early in the year, we told him he'd be doubled right away, and he dribbled it, which is sometimes a habit. He has to continue to improve on locating, seeing what's there. One time what hurt him on Sunday he tried to make a drop pass to Dijon Thompson on a cut and he didn't see that there was a guard standing right there to deflect the ball. He has to locate before he does anything. Slow down, you're seven feet, 270. You bench press over 315 pounds. And that's what he has to play to, his size and strength, not necessarily out-quicking anybody."
What kind of lesson did you learn from the first half of the first USC game?
"I watched that game again yesterday. Boy, that was hard to watch at times. We came out and didn't attack the zone. I think we're much better attacking zones. In fact, I hope they do zone. I was pleased when Stanford zone. What it does is make us be patient and slow down. It makes us play at a better pace where we don't have to push games. We didn't do a good job early in the USC game, attacking their zone. We didn't defend well. We didn't stand up screens. We were much tougher in the second half than we were in the first half. We had a hard time doubling the post because McMillan is an outstanding passer. He can really pass the ball out of the double. He did a great job in finding the open guy in that game. He's an impressive player. He's a guy that I think doesn't receive quite the recognition he deserves, for being as good as he is. I think part of that was being hurt. I think he broke his hand and was out for five or six weeks. That was a tough break for them."
Does the rivalry aspect of the game give it any extra meaning or importance?
"When you play your rivals it's always important. The fact that both teams are in a situation where we need to win badly, and they need to win badly. We're trying to improve our opportunity to go to post-season play, trying to improve where we're going to finish in the Pac-10, and they're fighting to get into the Pac-10 tournament. So there's a lot riding on it. Then you add onto that that we're rivals. And these guys know each other. You felt that the last time we played each other. Gabe and Nick, our three freshmen. But yes, I think the rivalry is always an aspect to it."
Fey got off to a good start. Was it discouraging that he couldn't ride that momentum to a better game?
"He had the first seven points. We did a good job of feeding him the ball. And then he had two opportunities right after that where he had a couple of lay-ups that didn't go for him. One was a tip in and one was from a nice pass from Arron Afflalo down low, again, that he hurried on. That's what we talked about today, what he needs to get better at. He needs to slow down. He's getting to the foul line two times per game in conference games. He shoots 77%, and we'd like him to get fouled more and get to the line. He's got to understand that and want it. I think that's where Dijon has really made improvements, getting to the line more. Jordan Farmar leads us, leads the team in fouls shots attempted, and does a great job at it. That's one thing you'll notice, all good scorers and good players get to the line. That means finishing strong. The one big thing for Michael, what I told him today, is that he has to stay with his shot. He'll shoot the ball from three or four feet and his hand will fall down to his side and the ball hasn't even hit the backboard or the rim yet, which means he's going really fast. He needs to slow down."
In the last five times you've had two games on the weekend, you're 4-1 on the first game and 0-5 on the second. Is your team getting too comfortable after that first win?
"I don't think that. I think, when we go back and look at it, the field goal percentage defense is not as good as where I want it to be, and where we're headed as a team and a program. When you see the difference between those Ws and Ls, it's in the field goal percentage offense. A lot of it has to do with shot selection. Against Arizona, we fueled things by taking bad shots, as I pointed out against Stanford. I'm responsible for it, and we have to get the guys to buy in and do what I want them to do. I thought we did a great job of that Thursday. Playing with the lead, building on that lead, how to play when you have the lead and the ball and be smart and take good shots."
How important is it to get Thompson in the flow right away?
"He's been good letting the game come to him. For most of the year he's been pretty good. The first time we played Stanford, he started out taking a quick shot. Sometimes when you're pressing and they get it going early right away it snowballs and it hurts you. You let the game come to you. He's going to get shots. He's going to get the ball in his hands and get opportunities. I'm not as worried about that."
Afflalo seems to really be struggling with his shot...
"He's shooting 35% from three in conference. That's not great, but it's not terrible. It's like shooting 52% from two. I'd like him to get more to the line himself. I was pleased with his defensive rebounding over the weekend. It was his best rebound by far. He had twelve defensive boards. I think five was a career high Thursday and seven was a career high Saturday. He'll get better and better as a consistent shooter. If you look at our three freshmen we're shooting 41% from the field, and less than 40% with the other two."
What's the status of McKinney and Mata?
"I expect McKinney to be fine for practice today. And Lorenzo had an x-ray of his sternum where he was hit and bruised, just as a precaution. We'll get back those results this afernoon."
Was he wearing something on his chest?
"Yeah, I think our trainer had a pad on it, but I'm not sure exactly what it was."
What do you think about playing USC and then having to travel across the country for Notre Dame?
"We'd rather be at home on Sunday. But when you look at it we have to deal with it, and deal with it in a positive way. According to Marc Dellins, our esteemed Sports Information Director at UCLA, 78%, almost 80%, of the country, will be tuned in to our game in South Bend on Sunday. So that's great, the exposure you get on a national telecast like that. It's hard to beat. I think it's good for recruiting. You're going to have the whole country watching UCLA/Notre Dame, a game that has some history to it. I was on a radio show earlier today where I guess someone down in San Diego was quoting Bill Walton saying that it's still one of the worst days of his life, losing to Notre Dame, and snapping the win streak. I'd rather see Digger Phelps in an outfit on Sunday. It's funny, you go back and look at some of those films and see Digger dressed up. I have to give him a hard time the next time I talk to him."