Ben Howland addressed the media in his weekly press conference Tuesday.
Are we allowed to mention the NCAA tournament today?
"You can ask any questions you want to ask. It's my job to tip toe around them."
Talk about the two games you've played against Oregon State and how they might differ from one another.
"The first game was the first Pac-10 game. It was New Year's Eve day. It seems like a long time ago. We're much improved from where we were at that point, as are they. That was the last game that we played a possession of zone defense. We did play actually quite a bit in that game. They are a good shooting team, so in that respect that was pretty stupid on my part. They shot 40% in conference games from three as a team, which is like shooting 60% from two. You look at the teams. They have a different starting lineup than they had at that point. We've been pretty consistent in that respect. Nick DeWitz is second or third in the conference in blocked shots. David Lucas is a great player, one of the top players in our conference. It's the second year in a row he's been an all Pac-10 selection. When we beat them here last Thursday it was a hard-fought game. We were in a dogfight there, and came out on top over the last couple of minutes of the game. But it was 61-all with less than three to go."
What does Lucas do to give you trouble?
"He's, in my opinion, along with Ike Diogu and Channing Frye, one of the top three big guys in this league. He's hard to defend. He's just a good player. He's hard for everybody. He's averaging over 18 a game against all opponents. I thought he especially played well on Thursday. That was a huge game for both teams. I think he had 24 in that game. He's 6-7, he's strong. He faced up and made shots in that game. He's very good around the basket. He's just very difficult to contain. He has really good touch with his jump hook and his little moves. He has that spin move, where he spins off you. He's very difficult to guard."
Michael Fey didn't play very much in that game. Was it because of the matchup with Lucas?
"Michael didn't have good game. It wasn't so much because of that, he just didn't play well. So Ryan Hollins did. When Ryan came in he gave us a big lift. One thing Lucas is very good is offensive rebounding. I think he averages close to four a game, which is a lot."
Lute Olson has criticized the conference tournament. What's your opinion?
"I think it's exciting. I think it's great for the players and the fans. I think it's tough when you play 21 games against your own. That's the most of any major conference. That's 18 conference and then adding three on top of it. Sometimes I think it works against you in the RPI. I think it's great to find one spot. That's what makes the Big East tournament so exciting. Every year people know they're going to New York City. It's exciting and electric. And that's what you want to get this tournament to. You have to commit to it. Commit to having it in one place, whether it's here or San Francisco, or wherever you're going to have it. I think Staples is great. Having that tradition every year going to that tournament people can be excited about it.'
Who has an advantage when you play a team a week later after you win?
"I don't know if there's any decided advantage. I think sometimes it's hard to beat a good team three times. But we split, so it's kind of a rubber match. We each won at home, and now we're at a neutral site. I know that they'll play very hard and tough against us Thursday afternoon."
Are there adjustments to make by the time you've played someone three times?
"There are always adjustments. Both teams will go back and look at the last game and see what we did. But there's always some minor adjustments."
They're 0-9 on the road in the conference. How does that come into play?
"When we came into that last game they were 0-7, and they played very well against us at Pauley."
Do you see any inclination why they've lost on the road?
"They've lost some close games. They had a great shot to win at Stanford and ASU. They're probably tired of hearing about it and would love to come out and get the monkey off their back. We're going to get a very hard-fought game. Both teams are going to be ready to play."
Your freshmen have had many experiences this year they had to work through. Is tournament play another?
"It's a game. We're still playing basketball. The bottom line is it's a neutral site. We'll be spending the night at the hotel Wednesday with everybody else. You have to show up and play the game."
Are you practicing at Staples?
Jordan Farmar said you're giving him more freedom to call plays on offense. Is that a sign of giving him more trust?
"He's a smart player. He makes good adjustments. Sometimes a player can have a feel for things playing the game out there. 'Hey, coach, so-and-so's open. This would be good.' Sometimes in the first half of games when they're loud away games, it's even hard to call. We usually have four or five sets that we're going to call, if it's man-to-man. If it's zone, it's a little different. And they play both. Oregon State played a lot of zone against USC actually. But yeah, I have a lot of confidence in Jordan."
Is Dijon Thompson in a shooting slump?
"I don't think so. I think all of the seniors were a little bit amped up on Saturday. It's their final game. It's almost surreal, being a former player, when you go through that experience. I thought it might have been over-adrenaline."
He's made 12 of 40 in three games. Is his shot selection okay?
"He's been taking pretty good shots, I think. He'll be fine. I'm not worried about it at all. That's the good news. Thanks for pointing it out. We won three games and Dijon hasn't been shooting it great. Imagine what happens when he does. And he will get it going here. That's a good thing to note."
How is Josh Shipp's ankle?
"It's improving. But I'm not actually going to allow him to practice at five-on-five with contact the next two days. It may not be the best thing for him, but in some ways it is. We can't not afford him to tweak that ankle in practice. We have to have him. He'll be doing a lot of stuff. Five on zero, and shooting. I'm thinking he's going to be fine that way. I thought about it yesterday. There's just no way I can see him being in another full-contact practice the rest of the year because of that ankle. We've been fortunate it hasn't happened in the game. We want to cut down on the opportunities for it to happen in practice by eliminating contact in practice for him. He's had treatment on it the last 48 hours since our game and is doing strengthening. I think it's getting better."
How does it affect him mostly in the game? Does it affect his shooting?
"He made two threes against Oregon. He had 20 and tied his career high. It didn't seem to hurt him too much. I thought Thursday he may have been a little out of his timing. He's doing a lot of shooting in practice, so I don't think it affects him that much, other than not getting the reps with someone guarding him."
Does the potential of playing three straight games affect you more than others because of your lack of depth?
"I don't know. Generally speaking, most teams are playing 7, 8, 9 guys. I'm not even thinking about that. I'm just thinking about winning on Thursday so we can play on Friday. That will be a good problem. If we have to play three days in a row that's a great problem that we want."
Do you agree with the common theory that a freshman at this time of year is closer to a sophomore?
"I do. I think they've had so much experience now. All three of our starting freshmen are playing over 30 minutes per game in conference. They've been through a whole year now, and they're playing good basketball. Our team is playing its best basketball of the year right now, winning five of the last six, and the four last opponents not shooting above 40% from the field...I think we're playing overall our best basketball. It'd be great to put together 40 minutes of great defense and great offense."
What was your biggest challenge once you knew you were going to start three freshmen? What did you think you had to do for it?
"I've never had three freshmen start before so it's new for me too. I think we started two once at Northern Arizona. You have to understand there are going to be some highs and lows for kids in their first year of college basketball. They've handled it so well. It's the one thing we look for in recruits - guys who play on winning teams. We want guys who are winners. Winners are used to winning. I think that's what you really have in our freshmen class and the kids we're bringing in next year. I was happy to see the two local products - Darren Collison from Etiwanda and Mike Roll of Aliso Niguel - both won CIF championships on Saturday. That's a good sign."
Did you stay in the hotel last year for the Pac-10 tournament?
"No.I think we were in an earlier game this year and last year we were in the evening game. I just don't want to mess around with the L.A. traffic. We'll stay there the whole time."
How is Lorenzo Mata?
"I think he's getting better. He's going to go today with contact, and we'll see how it is. I haven't been pressing it because Mike and Ryan have been doing an admirable job. We want him to be able to play, though. I think he's feeling a lot better. He's been getting his treatment. It is a freak injury, what he has. It was a one in the million, according to doctors. The only time you see that is in car accidents. It typically doesn't happen in sporting type injuries."
Mike Fey kneed him?
"No, it was actually Mata left his feet...you're supposed to stay down until the other guys leaves his feet...and then Mike actually angled up to him and hit him with his shoulder right in the sternum, that caused the fracture."
So, that's a lesson for not leaving your feet?
"No, I shouldn't say that. But that's what happened."
Has he not been playing because of a decision of yours?
"It's all based on his pain tolerance. I just haven't pressed him into playing because I thought we've been getting good minutes out of the other two. He could play and probably will play potentially this weekend. But I didn't want to have to do it. I was ready to play him against Notre Dame. We could have gotten into foul trouble very easily. But we just didn't play him."
Is there a sense that in your two years here you're ahead of schedule?
"I don't know about that, but I'm pleased with where we are. I'm excited about what we've done thus far. We still have hopefully a lot left to do. There are different seasons within a season. Our non-conference season. Our conference season. Now our Pac-10 conference tournament, and then post-season. I'm happen with both the 7-2 non-conference record. Losing to Boston College, which is top ten in RPI, and losing to Michigan State, which is right there with them. So we could have won a few more, but we're pretty happy where we are right now."
So, if someone would have told you two years ago that you were getting an NCAA tournament berth in your second year, would you been pretty satisfied about it?
"IF we get to the NCAA tournament, I'm excited. I think this team, what makes me feel good, is the adversity we fought through. We lost Cedric Bozeman the day before our first exhibition game. I was counting on Ced to being a big part of this team. We lost Janou Rubin in the second conference game of the year after he had just played and helped us win. So this team has fought through adversity. It's been able to maintain a level of pretty good play, considering some major setbacks with those injuries."
Have any of your younger players ever played at Staples? Like in high school?
"I don't know. I don't think so."
How is Ryan Hollins playing?
"I thought he played really well for us last Thursday against Oregon State. He had 9 points and six rebounds and played very good defense. He was more effective than Mike was in that game. He played a big role in helping us win in that all-important game. At the time we were fighting it out for finishing third, which is where we finished, and to get to 11 wins. So that was big. He did a great job for us. Sometimes the mathups favor Ryan versus Mike, or vice versa, just based on the personnel. I think Ryan has quicker feet, and he does a better job of guarding guys that step out on the perimeter, and guys that pick and pop, and play face-up. Mike is better suited to bangers down low, guys who try to out-physical you and use their size and strength to their advantage."
Would you ever start Ryan over Mike?
"I'm proud of the way Mike responded, after a less than stellar performance Thursday against Oregon State. He bounced back on Saturday and had arguably the best game of his career. He had 14 and 11, four blocks and three assists. A couple of those passes were really impressive. He made some nice passes. So he's coming off his career game, so we're hoping he can build on that now."
Can you ever get a sense who might have the better game beforehand? It doesn't seem like both ever do it in the same game.
"It's not so much that. I thought Mike would be ready to play on Saturday. He was just a few minutes late to getting taped on Thursday, as I found out after the game. As I was getting here Saturday really early, I saw him much earlier walking across the street to get taped. I got on him about that. Don't expect to play well by not preparing to play well, by being there and getting your reps in before. I'm happy that Mike played so well for us Saturday. He was one of the big reasons we won that game."
What do you think of your team's physical toughness at this point in the season?
"Pretty good. Battling through the fatigue has improved, in terms of the guys playing a lot of minutes, yet they're still able to play hard. That's mental. The physical part, they've been very good I think. I think the big thing for us the last few games, Arron Afflalo has done a very good job guarding the ball. The last four games our opponents are shooting the ball 40% or less, and I think there's a correlation between him guarding the ball and doing a good job."