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Jason Reid On College Basketball

Howland Won't Take Floyd's Bait

January 20, 2005|Jason Reid

The warning shot went unnoticed, or they really do play it cool in Westwood.

UCLA Coach Ben Howland seemingly was unfazed on learning of new USC Coach Tim Floyd's opening salvo at the Bruins, who aren't among Floyd's concerns.

Arizona is Floyd's barometer of success in the Pacific 10 Conference, and he's determined to lead the Trojans into the Wildcats' neighborhood.

UCLA? It's just another program to Floyd, who apparently knows how to stir things.

"Well, I wasn't there and I didn't hear what was said, but I'm basically getting the drift of it now," Howland said of Floyd's comments. "From what I'm hearing, I guess he was saying, 'Forget about UCLA.'

"Hey, that's fine. We're focused on our program and what we're trying to do here at UCLA."

The Bruins' focus has been impressive during a strong 4-2 start in the better-than-expected Pac-10. The Bruins (10-4 overall) are third in the Pac-10 as they play host to Stanford tonight at Pauley Pavilion.

Howland is in only his second season at UCLA, and his fast work might prompt Floyd to reassess his long-term vision of the conference, or at least add the Bruins to his list of potential challengers.

"I'm excited about where we are, but my expectation is to win," he said. "That's just the expectation at UCLA. Yes, we are starting three freshmen, but they've had a lot of experience. It's halfway through the season now, so they should be getting better.

"We're supposed to help them get better. We've played a lot of good teams, and we are getting better. That's the key."

Freshman point guard Jordan Farmar has handled his responsibilities well, setting the pace for the Bruins while averaging 13.8 points and a team-high five assists. Freshman guard Arron Afflalo is a force on offense (11.3 points) and defense, and freshman swingman Josh Shipp averages eight points and is second on the team in rebounding (4.9).

Reserve freshman center Lorenzo Mata has provided toughness inside, which the Bruins have lacked from 7-foot juniors Michael Fey and Ryan Hollins.

"Farmar has done a great job with the point-guard duties," Howland said. "It's a lot of responsibility to be the coach on the floor, and he has continued to improve throughout the year.

"Afflalo is probably our best defender of any of our perimeter players as a freshman, and I really like Josh Shipp. He's got a great feel for the game, and he's our second-leading rebounder.

"You look around the country and see how many programs are starting three freshmen in such prominent roles. There aren't that many. They've done a great job."

Of course, kids will be kids.

Some of Farmar's decisions have infuriated Howland, and Afflalo and Shipp have had down moments as well.

In the closing seconds Saturday against Arizona, Afflalo ignored Howland's instructions to play tight against Wildcat senior guard Salim Stoudamire and make him drive. As Afflalo backed off, Stoudamire made a 26-foot jump shot with 2.5 seconds to play to give then-17th-ranked Arizona a 76-73 victory at the McKale Center.

But all in all, the freshmen have been a net gain for UCLA.

"I'm very happy with their development," Howland said. "All four of them have played prominent parts to us having some success thus far."

So has senior forward Dijon Thompson, who isn't the same player he was in his first three seasons in Westwood.

The development of Shipp prompted Howland to move Thompson inside when he returned to the lineup after having sat out a game because of a hand injury.

Thompson had a personal-best 29 points, including the decisive three-point basket, Dec. 18 in UCLA's 81-79 victory over Michigan.

He scored 19 of his 29 points in the second half as the Bruins stormed back from a 21-point halftime deficit Jan. 8 in a 95-86 upset of then-12th-ranked Washington.

Thompson leads UCLA with averages of 18.4 points and 8.8 rebounds. He's shooting 48.5% from the field, 83.3% from the free-throw line and 39.1% beyond the three-point arc.

The play of Thompson and the impressive youth movement might lead to the Bruins' first NCAA tournament appearance since 2002, but it won't be easy to get there through the Pac-10.

Only the Atlantic Coast Conference ranks ahead of the Pac-10 in Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), which is among the criteria the NCAA uses in selecting the tournament field.

"Our league is right behind the ACC. It's really, really up right now," Howland said. "We're just trying to build a good foundation."

Don't Give Up

Floyd, who officially takes control at USC on April 1, encouraged the Trojans to finish strong in his first meetings with coaches and players in Heritage Hall.

USC (8-9 overall, 1-5 in conference) is last in the Pac-10 as it plays host to California tonight at the Sports Arena.

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