Is everyone healthy?
"I just talked to the trainer yesterday. It seems that all the players are pretty much healthy."
Any significant body changes over the summer?
"In conditioning, T.J. Cummings and Jon Crispin have really excelled. Both of those two kids look like they're in excellent shape. Ryan Walcott and Cedric Bozeman look like they've put on some muscle. Josiah Johnson is leaner. Those are just the quick impressions."
Did having the conference tournament last year help your younger players?
"Even though we lost to Cal, I think last year really helped. Like Cedric Bozeman, Dijon Thompson and Andre Patterson and Ryan Walcott, our younger players, who naturally are going to have some of that deer-in-the-headlights look in their first post-season format, which was the Pac-10 tournament, gained some valuable experience."
Does it feel like Jason Kapono has been here for eight years?
"Yeah, Rico Hines finally graduated. So, Jason, and Ray Young, seems like Ray has been around a long time. I think it worked out really well for us. We kind of staggered our leadership with the seniors and fifth-year seniors. Moose Bailey was a fifth-year senior, Jason Flowers, Billy Knight, Rico. This year it's Ray, and then next year Crispin will be a fifth-year senior. The following year Brian Morrison will be a fifth-year senior. In this era when kids are leaving for the NBA, I think it really helps if you can have fifth-year seniors, to bring a lot of experience and the leadership, to give you the stability and continuity that's necessary."
Are you looking at Hollins and Fey to be competing for a starting position?
"It's probably too soon to really know. I think both will see minutes this year. It's too early to tell, because we haven't even practiced yet, in terms of how it's all going to fall out, in terms of starting lineups. But they'll definitely see some time on the front line. Cummings, Josiah Johnson, Mike Fey, Ryan Hollins, and Andre Patterson, those five give us a front line, and front line depth. Matt McKinney is kind of a 3-4. He can play on the wing, but he may play a little down low. But we have to kind of see."
What's the older leadership going to be like on this team?
"I like our upper classmen. Ray Young and Jason Kapono, T.J. Cummings and Jon Crispin. Those four kids. Crispin, from the east coast, played in the Big Ten and tough environments. He's played at the highest level and in tough environments. And he's a fourth-year junior. Fourth-year juniors, fifth-year seniors, I think that's really valuable. As a coach it's a real asset to have. It's almost like having extra coaches, a coach on the floor."
How much tougher now is recruiting, just in the time you've been the head coach at UCLA?
"I think it's always competitive. It's just relative. Pepperdine has its work cut out for them. And we have our work cut out for us. For a different set of reasons. We're going against Stanford and Arizona, Kentucky, Kansas, Duke and North Carolina. Top programs in the country, so it's very competitive when you go after the elite player. But the mid-major program has other kinds of challenges. It will always be competitive. But I don't think it's tougher now than it was fifteen years ago. It's challenging all the way through."
Do you like recruiting?
"Yeah. It's where you begin to build relationships with your players. Actually I'm close to a lot of kids that we didn't even get. The Collins twins, Chris Burgess, Eric Chenowith, Justin Davis, Carlos Boozer, Andrew Gooden. Those are kids I still talk to on the phone. Or they come by the office. I still talk to their parents. Exchange notes over the course of the year. I enjoy building the relationship and establishing the relationship, also with the parents."
It seems like all players believe they can play in the NBA. How receptive are they and their parents to hearing reality?
"You try to give them the balanced view. Our presentation in terms of recruiting. The education at UCLA is something that will set them up for the next fifty years of their life. We obviously talk about the strong track record at UCLA, the program, the tradition, the conference, the exposure, the national championships, the number of players who have gone on to successful NBA careers, the Hall-of-Famers. But then we talk about that that's the minority of the ones that make it. Kids are going to have to fall back on their education, their degree, their experience over their four or five years at UCLA to set themselves up for the next 50 years of their life. That's what we call our fifty-year life plan. That's basically in a nutshell what we sell and present. More than anything else, the fifty year life plan. You can talk about the game plan to beat a team, but the life plan is really the foundation put in place for your experience at UCLA."
How do you handle the pressure?
"I had good mentors. They taught me the right way to approach life and keeping a balance and perspective on things. My mother and father. Obviously Coach Keady, and the guys I studied and learned from. The Knights, the Krzyzewskis, the Grguriches, the Tarks. And Jim Harrick here at UCLA. Five years as his assistant, I got to kind of watch and observe him in terms of how he handled the job at UCLA, and how he handled the expectation, and the kind of unique pathology in terms of UCLA basketball."
Were you totally ready for this job when you got it?
"No. I don't think anybody could be ready for the UCLA job. Obviously John Wooden, 16 or 17 years after he got it rolling. But I don't think any coach that followed Wooden is ever going to match up to the 88 straight or the ten championships in 12 years or the seven in a row that he ripped off. So you try to grow, learn and get better. You're never going to master it but at least you're moving in the right direction. You're working toward getting a better grasp at what it entails to be the head coach at UCLA. Workouts are important. Get your exercise. Keep your sense of humor. You'd better have a good sense of humor or it's going to be pretty grim."
Besides T.J., who do you expect to contribute to post defense and rebounding this year?
"Fey, Ryan Hollins, Josiah Johnson, Andre Patterson..."
When do you expect to have Patterson back?
"Between the Northern Arizona game or Kansas."
Are you in touch with him?
"He comes by the office a lot. He calls. He's been really visible around our guys."
Will he give you an indication of how he's doing?
"He's been on a good four-month stretch. He had two strong sessions of summer school. It appears he's doing real well at Santa Monica, and he's starting to see the results of his hard work. Obviously he struggled with the transition from high school to college, as a lot of kids have. It's a big jump, academically, athletically, socially, across the board. He struggled but he learned from it."
Will you go with a smaller lineup a lot this year? And would you expect to get more rebounding from your perimeter players?
"Let's say we were going with a smaller lineup – Cummings, Young, Thompson, Bozeman, Kapono – it's four perimeter players around Cummings. But actually that's a lot of size. You're looking at 6-8, 6-7, 6-6, 6-8. So when we say small lineup, everyone is 6-6 or bigger. So they are players that play on the perimeter, but sometimes your perimeter players are better at rebounding, they can anticipate, their footwork is in some ways more advanced than some of your post players, who traditionally have slower feet. The best of both worlds is to have the size and the quickness, and I think that's what we have, that kind of a nice balance of size and quickness, this year. You kind of saw it late in the year last year. That younger group that really sparked us late in the year. To come back against Oregon at home. We ended up losing the game, but our kids got us back in that game. They brought us back against Cal. We lost that game as well. But then they broke out in our two big wins against Mississippi and Cincinnati. They didn't play as well in the Missouri game but no one shot the ball well in that game. But that young team you can kind of see emerging, the freshmen and sophomore group. And now they're going play a more prominent role this year and that's what was kind of exciting about our finish last year. You could see a kind of a glimpse of the future of our team and the program. And then you add with that now Ray Young coming back, Crispin, and obviously Kapono, who is as prolific a scorer there is in America, that's a nice mix."
How will your defense be? You've had an intimidating guy in the middle in recent years...
"It's still too early tell what Hollins and Fey and Johnson, McKinney, Patterson, Cummings, will bring in terms of the front line. But I'd say we're quicker than we've been in the last three years at least. We'll miss Dan Gadzuric because he was a tremendous presence in the middle but I think our young kids have potential and upside, and obviously we'll go through the growing pains of all freshmen."
Will you use the press?
"I'd like to see if we could press some. But with all of our younger players we'll have to kind of watch and find out where we are, particularly early with Ryan [Walcott] being out those first two games, and Patterson. There will be a lot of freshmen in the mix. I'll have to see. We'll work on it in practice. Based on the components, based on how it looks, if we do try it in games, we'll just go from there."
Is this your best group of jump shooters?
"I really like their overall skill set, in terms of passing, catching and shooting the ball. We still have to see in terms of conditioning, maturity, basketball I.Q., savvy, understanding the game."
Will you use the 1-4 or the motion on offense?
"A mix of both, kind of like we did toward the end of last year. We'll run some 41s and 32s, which is four out and one in, and three around two, motion offense."
With players leaving early to the NBA, has that created parity in with the programs that traditionally have more fourth- and fifth-year players?
"The Gonzagas, the Valparaisos, those are teams that have fourth- and fifth-year players, some have already played junior college, they're going against your freshmen or sophomores. And that's why you see Western Kentucky beat Kentucky, or Wright States beat Michigan States, or Ball States beat UCLA, the Davidsons beat North Carolina. These scores don't make any sense if you look back twenty years ago. But now, it's an everyday occurence. That's where the landscape has changed."
What do you expect from Cedric Bozeman?
"Just like he played at the end of last season. He only had two turnovers in the three NCAA tournament games combined. If he can just pick up where he left off, I think just the fact that he'll be healthy from the outset. I think he's stronger. He has a year under his belt. The most difficult year, like for Earl Watson or Baron, is your first year on the road. They were horrendous. Tyus Edney on the road as a freshman was awful. Players in their freshman year are going to struggle with that transition from high school to college are going to struggle, particularly in their road games."
Given that, then does that mean, in terms of Hollins and Fey, that Cummings is your center?
"We have to mix it up. Those guys are going to play. Whether they start, I don't really concern myself with as much as just finding different combinations. So early we'll be shuffling the decks. It's a new team, with a lot of freshmen and sophomores, that are going to play a lot. With our schedule we'll probably take some hits like we always do. And then kind of figure out that combination of players that will allow us to be successful to make our run late in the season. We play our best basketball in March. But I can tell you right now if it's going to be Fey and Hollins playing, the twin towers. There will probably be times that we go with the real big front line, and there will be times, I don't want to say it this way, but we'll go ‘small.'"
Will Cummings play the traditional center?
"No, I wouldn't want him to. His skill set and strength is really stepping big guys away from the bucket and knocking down shots. To take advantage of his quickness against bigger players. There will be times when T.J. is the five, and he's not your conventional five. Similar to what we did with J.R. Henderson when he was a five. To bring away Tractor Traylor against Michigan by stepping out J.R. and drawing their big defender away from the paint, and opening up things in terms of rebounding and posting up our smaller people. We'll take advantage of T.J.'s skill set to exploit our opponents in matchups. But Kapono will play the four at times. Which might be a very difficult matchup. He's like Kris Johnson, taking their four man, their power forward away from the bucket. We have a four and a five that can take people away from the bucket, which creates a lot of problems. So we lose a lot in Gadzuric, since he was such a strong presence, but we'll create matchup problems because we have Ryan Hollins who can knock down threes and Cummings who can knock down shots, and even Patterson, who is a very difficult four-man matchup. He's quick and he has some nifty, kind of crafty moves around the basket. So we won't have a traditional seven-footer in terms of experience. Fey is a heck of a prospect, but he's still a freshman. But we'll have other dimensions that we didn't have last year."
Defensively will you play man-to-man?
"We always start with man as our base defense, but we also mix in the press and our matchup zone. Similar to what we did against Cincinnati, give an opponent a bunch of different looks to try to keep them off-balance."
With T.J. can you get away with him playing in the post since the centers aren't nearly as good as they were in this league as they were last year?
"I still want to mix it up. With all those kids. Hollins, he's kind of a quick, Marcus Camby type. He's obviously not that level. Camby is an NBA guy. But similar in style at the stage of his career. He can run the floor, very athletic, shot blocker, defender-type player. So he's long and lean, blocking everybody's shots. T.J. is a little bit stronger and more experienced. Fey is a little more lumbering at this stage, but he's still fast, for a 7-1 kid, he's pretty quick. But he's not as quick as T.J., Andre or Ryan. Those three can be cat-quick, athletic players that are tough to matchup with and score against. And Fey is a more traditional 7-1, but he's a freshman. And Josiah is experienced, and you can't forget about him. He's one of those kids that does everything right. He's in his third year now, so, it will be interesting to see what he brings to the table. But we'll get different looks, it won't just be T.J. in the center."
How has it been with Dan Guerrero as the athletic director?
"He's been very supportive. He's capable, competent, a great communicator, and very compassionate toward coaches and student-athletes. He attended one of our recruiting picnics, which is a first, out at the Rose Bowl. He already talked to our team, which is a first in twelve years. He's been refreshing. Just great to work with. It's impossible not to like Dan Guerrero. I have yet to meet a person that has said a bad thing about him. He loves UCLA. He has a passion for UCLA. He's a competitor. He wants to win. He wants to help his coaches. He's a people person. He's just a breath of fresh air, and is invigorating the whole athletic department. There isn't a person alive who could say a bad thing about him. I've talked to the guys at UC Irvine, I've talked to athletes, the guys at Dominguez Hills. Every coach, every athlete, raves about him. I talked to (UC Irvine Head Coach) Pat Douglass, and (UC Irvine assistant) Todd Lee. And he's exactly like people said he was going to be. Straight forward, direct, positive, encouraging. He wants to help you. Just being able to talk to your boss, sharing the same goals, and having the same mission, you look forward to going to work everyday."
Has he been curious about the details of how the program is run?
"Sure. We had two really good meetings. One was early when he just got here. And one was a couple of weeks ago when we had the total overview of the program."
What do you think about your schedule this year?
"It's probably the most challenging schedule of my career. One of the reasons why we've been so successful as we have is because we play high-level non-conference games. It gives you a barometer of where you are early in the year. So you go back to the drawing board, and then are able to clean things up and make a run late in the year and in the tournament. The earlier you play tough teams the better, for knowing where you are. I think the reason we play our best basketball in March is because we play a tough schedule every year. If you play a cupcake schedule maybe you have 25, 26, 27, 28 wins, but are you really better as a team? I'd rather have 21, 22, 23, wins and play a top-five schedule in America, no cupcakes, and have a better team at the end of the season."