Seth Davis will periodically answer questions from SI.com users in his Hoop Thoughts column.
LOS ANGELES -- Amidst the many banners lording above Nell and John Wooden Court inside Pauley Pavilion, two simple navy banners -- blankets, really -- hang behind each basket. Embroidered with the letters "Ucla," the garments were not put there to commemorate any great Bruins triumph. Rather, they were hung, at the direction of coach Ben Howland, to cover the clocks located at the north and south ends of the arena.
Howland wants those clocks covered because he does not want his players knowing what time it is. More to the point, he does not want them knowing how much time is left in practice. "There's no time when we're out there," he explained to me afterward while sitting behind the desk in his office. "I want them focused on what we're doing on the floor and nothing else." Howland learned the trick from former UC Santa Barbara coach Jerry Pimm, under whom Howland worked as an assistant a few lifetimes ago.
The players may not have been able to see the clocks during the practice I watched on Monday afternoon, but toward the end of the workout they must have felt time was standing still. The practice ended with a free-throw drill. All the players were lined up along a baseline, and one by one they stepped to the foul line. Each time a player failed to make two in a row, the entire team had to run to the far baseline and back in less than 10 seconds. As a group, they made just 12 of 27 attempts. "You're missing free throws because you're out of shape," Howland told them at one point as they gasped and tugged their shorts. "Push yourselves when you run, get in shape and you'll make your free throws when we start playing games."
Covering the clocks might seem like a small thing, but no detail is too small for Howland's discerning eye. During his 12 years as a head coach at Northern Arizona, Pittsburgh and UCLA, Howland has forged his reputation around two things -- his unrelenting devotion to defense and his uncanny ability to develop his players' talents.
For example, when I asked Howland in his office after practice what he wanted his team's identity to be, he told me he didn't understand the question. "You know, what do you want them to do best?" I said. He smiled and said, "It's always defense." Silly sportswriter.