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8/23/2007 10:14:00 AM
Blog Q&A with ... UCLA's Ben Howland
With the addition of star recruit Kevin Love and four starters returning, UCLA coach Ben Howland looks to guide his Bruins to their third straight Final Four.
Rob Curtis/Icon SMI
For the latest in a series of offseason Q&As, I chatted with UCLA coach Ben Howland, who guided the Bruins to their second straight Final Four this past season. Howland, who had just returned from vacation in Hawaii when we spoke, is returning a loaded team -- minus All-America two-guard Arron Afflalo, who was a first-round draft pick of the Pistons -- that should contend for a national title in 2007-08. The following is an edited transcript of our phone conversation from Thursday.
Luke Winn: With super-recruit Kevin Love on the way in, and Arron gone to the draft, how will your lineup be restructured next season? Is it as easy as putting Love at center, and shifting Lorenzo Mata, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Josh Shipp [last year's five, four and three, respectively] down a position?
Ben Howland: Actually, when Kevin plays alongside Lorenzo, [Love] will probably end up playing the four on defense as opposed to the five. And we're definitely going to be playing Lorenzo and Kevin together at times. On offense, though, Kevin will be able to play both the four and the five. He works [at the five] because he'll probably be our best rebounder, if not one of our top two. He has very good low-post moves, plus he can step out and shoot the three, and he's good from the foul line. But the biggest thing is what Kevin can do around the basket. We haven't had a great low-post scorer since I've been here.
LW: Kevin is also the biggest recruit you've ever signed at UCLA. What is his immediate potential for this season? Can he make an impact anywhere near what Kevin Durant did at Texas as a freshman?
BH: I hope so. That would be great. I think Kevin is going to be very good. He'll be one of the best freshmen in the country. There are a lot of good big men in our conference -- and the Pac-10 is the best league in the country -- so it's going to be a good challenge for Kevin.
LW: Love has been on campus for a while now. What has he been up to this summer?
BH: He's been to summer school in both sessions, and he actually went down with Darren Collison and played in a camp [the Adidas Nations Basketball Experience] in New Orleans. All reports out of there were that Kevin was one of the best players in the whole thing. He's working real hard. On campus they play regular pickup at the Men's Gym [in the Student Activities Center]. Kevin Garnett was there this week. Emeka Okafor's been there; he played against [Love]. Baron Davis has been there, so has Earl Watson and Sam Cassell. The list goes on and on. It's great competition.
LW: It seems like a large number of foreign-born college players are having big summers in international competition. We recently ran a story on the Ohio State guy, Kosta Koufos, starring for Greece's Under-18 team, and also mentioned how one of your reserves, Nikola Dragovic, was the third-leading scorer on a Serbian gold-medal team in the European Under-20s. Were you able to keep tabs on your guys overseas?
BH: Absolutely. In fact, Luc is over in Africa now, playing qualifiers in an Olympic tournament for Cameroon. They have a game today against Egypt in Angola, and if they win they're in the Olympics. Alfred Aboya played in the first qualifying tournament in Algeria, and Luc's playing well in this one.
As for Nikola, we're going to need him because we're down to 10 guys on scholarship after what happened to [forward] James Keefe; he's going to be out for the first couple of months because of shoulder surgery, which is sad because he had such a great spring and summer. Last season, Nikola had to miss the first 12 games because of an NCAA ruling [over playing for a professional team in Serbia], so that set him back. He's going to start out fine this year.
LW: You had an international experience of your own a long while back -- your one year of playing pro ball in Uruguay, in 1980. How did that come about?
BH: Someone just got ahold of me about the opportunity [after finishing at Weber State in '79]. We were really the first group of Americans to play down there. It was a great experience culturally; it made you appreciate being American. No one was starving to death, but TVs and cars were real luxury items. A washer and dryer for your clothes, those were like luxury items. We take that stuff for granted in this country.
LW: What was it like playing-wise -- and did you consider staying there for more than a year?
BH: There were times when we would play on cement floors … or find ourselves in a situation where everybody in the arena was smoking. I made about $1,000 a month, and I had a chance to stay, but I wanted to go into coaching. The best thing for me was to get back and start [as a graduate assistant] at Gonzaga.
LW: You have a lot of talent returning this year, but how do you expect to pick up the defensive slack from Arron's departure? He was regarded as a great lock-down guy on the perimeter.
BH: We're going to play Luc at the three this year, and the biggest difference from that move will come on defense. He's so versatile that he can guard a point guard all the way up to a five, and there are very few players you can say that about. Luc will definitely end up guarding some of the other team's best wings.
LW: Josh Shipp is going to have to play a huge role this year. How is his rehab work coming after that left-hip surgery?
BH: Josh actually played five-on-five yesterday for the first time since he had the surgery on April 20, and he apparently played well. He's going to play again tomorrow, which means he's ahead of schedule now from where I expected him to be. It looks like he'll be ready to go once practice starts in October. Initially I thought he wouldn't start playing five-on-five until mid-September.
LW: I usually ask this question of players in Q&As, but since we're in the middle of the U.S. senior team's qualifying, and [Villanova's] Jay Wright and [DePaul's] Jerry Wainwright had the chance to coach younger U.S. all-star teams this summer, I think it's timely. If you had to fill a starting five with current college players not from UCLA, whom would you pick?
BH: I would love to have [Tyler] Hansbrough from North Carolina. I think Brook Lopez at Stanford is a very good big kid, and I could probably just pick a lineup from the Pac-10, since our league is so good. Outside [of the conference], I love Darrell Arthur and Brandon Rush at Kansas, too -- and the two freshmen coming in at Indiana and Memphis, Eric Gordon and Derrick Rose. There are so many good players out there.
If I had to settle on a starting five, though, I'd start Hansbrough at the four; I just love his toughness, and how relentless he is as a rebounder and scorer. Lopez would be at the five. Rush would be at the two. For a point guard, I'd take D.J. Augustin from Texas. And then the three … I'd probably choose a guy like Kyle Weaver from Washington State. He's so versatile that he can play the one, two or three. He's got a future in the NBA.
Third time's the charm! UCLA has a good of a chance as anyone for the NC. With Love, a great point guard, and with experienced returning players (tournament experience) who know how to win everything points to a great year.
If you don't think Washington State University will make a run for the title you are crazy. They return 5 starters from last year and are the college example of the San Antonio Spurs. We have probably the most skilled international players in the nation. We will crush the bruins just wait
Ben Howland is an excellent coach. The UCLA bruins have excelled despite not having a highly touted recruit. Finally, they are getting one who coincidently addresses their biggest need, low post scorer.