Ben Howland on Wednesday:
Q: Coach, after your last big win, there’s always a tendency sometimes to want to keep going right away. How are you going to keep your guys “up” after being off for just a few days as you get ready for conference?
BH: we played on Friday night. So we took Saturday and watched film of that game. And that was a game that could’ve easily gone either way. We were down 9 with 4 [minutes] to go, and found a way to come back and win that in overtime against a very good team. And then Sunday, we had the day off. We’ve had 3 practices since. But of course, after a good win like that, people were telling me, “boy, you guys really played good…” I thought today [01/02/13] was our best practice of the week. And hopefully that’s good as we head into tomorrow [01/03/13] with a very important season opener for the conference.
Q: have you noticed a certain swagger, maybe even confidence, since the Missouri game?
BH: I don’t know about that. We’re eleventh in the conference in field goal percentage defense. We’re #1 in field goal percentage offense. We’re #1 in scoring. The area that concerns me is the defense on the floor. We have to do a better job. Cal runs their offense and executes as well as anybody in the PAC-12 and will really be a challenge in that respect.
Q: what’s your assessment of how Shabazz [Muhammad] has improved as a defender so far?
BH: he’s definitely growing, and it’s getting better there. He’s still got a lot of improvement to make. His effort’s been really good. He’s really improved a lot with the defense on the floor. He knows that’s a very important aspect of his game for him to reach his potential as an all-around basketball player which is what it’s all about. I mean, if you’re motivated to be a great one, you want to be great at both ends. You look at the Kobes, the Michael Jordans, the great ones. The great ones are great at both ends. All-defensive teams. Along with being a great scorer. That’s what I love about LeBron [James] and Dwayne Wade. These guys are incredible at both ends of the floor. That’s what Russell [Westbrook] is. Russell Westbrook might be the best defensive point guard in the league and is definitely one of the top offensive players in the NBA.
Q: what’s his attitude about learning defense and getting better at it?
BH: it’s been great. He knows. He understands, and it starts with his family. His dad was a player. His dad, Ron Holmes, played at USC. He says, “Hey, you’ve got to do better.” He’s his biggest critic. So that’s always nice to have family understand and be promoting and pushing the same things.
Q: Ben, how would you describe his competitive streak? His “killer instinct” as we call it?
BH: he’s very good. That’s why he’s a high achiever. It’s about being competitive. I think we have a lot of guys like that. I really like this group’s competitiveness. Jordan Adams is a great competitor. Kyle [Anderson] is a great competitor. Larry [Drew II], the Wears are very good competitors. Norman [Powell]. They’re all. So it’s good. I was just thinking about Tony [Parker]. Tony actually, his back acted up again on him today. He went through the whole practice but it’s something that hasn’t happened since we got back from Brooklyn [New York]. So he had a little issue with his back today that hopefully won’t be a problem moving forward. Norman practiced all 3 practices with his sprained ankle, and it’s getting better day by day.
Q: how can you tell with… let’s say Shabazz and Kyle… especially given Shabazz’s dad played with USC and Kyle’s dad has been a coach for so long, can you pick those guys out right away and tell they’re a little different?
BH: yeah, it’s through performance and understanding. Kyle has been around it because his dad was a Division I assistant, was an AAU coach and followed the players program out of New Jersey forever. He’s known J.R. Smith since he was 5 years old. And he’s grown up with all these kids so he’s been around this all his life. As has Shabazz. His dad… his best friends are his former teammates. Larry Drew, obviously his dad is involved in basketball. We’ve got a bunch of them. The Wears’s dad was a very good player. He played at Fresno and Cal State Fullerton was a coach. So many of them had that background. Jordan Adams’s dad was an AAU coach. He coached with the Atlanta Celtics for years. So they were all around basketball a lot.
Q: you talked about…you mentioned the defense was second to last in the conference. But you’re 10-3. How do you kind of balance the two? You’re winning games by scoring…
BH: we’ll be a better team when we get that figured out a little bit better. I think it’s 41.2%. the last few games have been 47, 48, 48. That’s just too high. And some of it speaks to the teams we’re playing against. We’re playing against some pretty darn good teams. I think Long Beach has a great chance at winning their conference. I really liked how Fresno State played against us. And obviously, Missouri is a team that’s going to be seeded very high at the end of the season, providing they stay healthy.
Q: Ben, do you fear that catching up to you at some point where the offense just doesn’t have it one night…
BH: that’s why you always like the team that has the defense to rely on. Because night in and night out, you can always control your effort at the defensive end and your ability to play good defense. There’ll be nights where you’re not shooting as well. But we’re a good shooting team. We’re a good scoring team. we’ve got a lot of guys that can put the ball in the basket. And part of it is how we’re playing. We’re playing faster. There’s more possessions so it’s a little harder. We’ve got to get it down a few more percentage points. And not allow second shots. That’s what really hurt us in the last game [Missouri]: transition baskets and second shots.
Q: how is it for you? Is this kind of new in your coaching history, like 90 points, 97 points the other night?
BH: yeah, we just want to win.
Q: so you don’t look at the stats and go…
BH: we’re looking at what’s the spread and field goal percentage defense.
Q: is this as fast as you’ve ever had a team play?
BH: no. At Northern Arizona, we were #1 in the country 3 years in a row at 3 point percentage. And #1 or #2, 3 years in a row at field goal percentage offense, scoring a lot of points. So it just varies.
Q: has anything about the freshmen surprised you? Obviously, these guys were good coming in but anything surprise you?
BH: not particularly. We knew they were all good players. I’m excited about all 4 of them. I thought Tony had a really good practice at being more physical. Everybody is learning new things. Larry’s really improved. I’m really excited about Larry Drew’s improvement. Probably the most surprising thing was I didn’t know Jordan Adams would be this good. He was here this summer, and it was clear right away that he was really good. And he keeps getting better. You look at his numbers. 5 assists in the last 2 games. 5 steals against Fresno State. 7 rebounds against Fresno State. He’s doing a lot of little things to help the team outside of his scoring.
Q: Ben, how have you felt about the pace of the defense and how it’s improved over the last 2, 3 weeks?
BH: it’s been good. We’re getting better. We were horrible 6 weeks ago. 5 weeks ago. Part of that was you’re playing against organized teams that were veteran groups. We were lucky to beat UC Irvine. Very lucky. We lost to Cal Poly. Part of that too though is understanding how to play on offense. Your offense plays to your defense. That’s what we’ll see tomorrow [01-03-13]. They’re going to play a very controlled pace in the half court, and make us be more patient with our offense. Where we’re always going to be on defense. That’s kind of what Fresno did. But getting back to our defensive improvement, we’ve made a lot of improvement the last 5 or 6 weeks.
Q: Coach, what is it about conference play that some of the younger guys are going to experience that they don’t know about until they go through it?
BH: yeah, it’s a whole new season. Whatever’s happened up to now is … I’m excited about our conference. Our conference going in, at this time of year compared to a year ago, is a much stronger conference. You look at the out-of-conference wins. You look at the strength of each of the teams. Arizona State is playing great. Oregon is playing great. Cal and Stanford are very good teams. Arizona is third or fourth or whatever they are in the country. We’ve got a lot of teams that are playing well and doing a good job. Washington State I think is 9-4 or 9-3. They’re going to be going into foreign environments for the first time. Every time you have those 4 letters [UCLA] on your jersey, no matter where you go, you’ll get the other team’s best effort. That continues to be something that they’ll continue to experience.
Q: talking about Cal and their roster. The one guy that’s obviously not there anymore is [Jorge] Gutierrez.
BH: yeah, he was player of the year the last 2 years. They have a really good group. [Allen] Crabbe, I love. He’s a future NBA player. [Justin] Cobbs, you know, they’re arguably the best guards in the conference. They’re special. They’re both really good. They make 53% of their shots. They’re very unselfish. They make plays for others. But their other guys are good. I like their frontline. I like [David] Kravish. I think he’s going to be a really good player as he continues to grow and progress. [Richard] Solomon is a good player. The big kid, [Robert] Thurman, off the bench is good. I like [Tyrone] Wallace a lot. I think he’s going to be a very good player. He’s doing a really good job for them. He’s starting now, I think the last 3 games for them. Brandon Smith gives them experience and toughness. He couldn’t play in the last game from a concussion. We’re assuming he’s back and healthy for tomorrow night.