It might have been easy for Ben Howland to mention the recently completed season when he arrived in Westwood, if for no other reason than to motivate the group he inherited as the new UCLA coach.
"I didn't really think about or talk with our team about last year," he said. "It was a whole new beginning for everybody, a clean slate, a different atmosphere in terms of how we're going to do things and how we're going to proceed."
As he had done in transforming Pittsburgh into a national power, Howland stressed defense and rebounds. The motivation? Do that with an unbridled fervor or sit.
Apparently, returning starters T.J. Cummings, Dijon Thompson and Cedric Bozeman have bought into that approach.
Entering today's game against visiting No. 7 Arizona, UCLA is holding teams to an average of 64.3 points on 39.0 percent shooting and is outrebounding teams by an average of 6.2. Last season, UCLA allowed an average of 78.6 points and held a 0.4 edge in rebounds.
The Bruins (9-3) are in first in the Pac-10 (5-0). Last season, they were 10-19, their first losing season since 1947-48. They also saw a streak of 14 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, which included a national title in 1995, come to an end.
No. 4 Wake Forest at No. 2 Duke, 1, today, Ch. 28. This has the makings of a classic shootout. These could be the top two teams in perhaps the nation's strongest league.
Nick Smith: Got a minute?
Illinois center Nick Smith, the former Bloomingdale High star, is playing his best ball of late for the No. 25-ranked Fighting Illini. He recently took a minute to chat with Times staff writer Brian Landman.
BL: Is your recent play a sign of maturation?
NS: I've been trying to take a little more upon myself to make plays in big situations, just because I'm one of the older guys on the team.
BL: I have to ask. What's the story with your nickname, "Chainsaw?"
NS: I got that my redshirt freshman year. I'm not really sure why. It's kind of stuck for the last four years. Everybody still calls me the same thing.
BL: You don't have any clout now, as one of the older guys, to change it?
NS: No. It doesn't bother me like "Barbie doll" or something like that would. Everybody else likes it, so it's fine with me.
BL: In December, you earned your bachelor's degree in finance. How did you balance the time demands?
NS: It was hard. Some semesters weren't too bad and some were real tough. It's just one of those things you focus on and get through. Things turned out pretty well for me.
BL: And you're starting work on a master's?
NS: The program I'm getting ready to start, assuming everything goes well, I can finish within a year. That's the plan, anyway.
BL: During all the road trips, is there a hotel with a long enough bed for someone who's 7-2?
NS: No, but I'm pretty used to the feet hanging off the bed thing. It's one of those things you learn to live with.
Off the rim
Washington State's Dick Bennett, the longtime Wisconsin coach, brings a stool with him to all games. It's not out of superstition or to draw attention or give him something that's easy to hurl.
It's out of practicality. He used to squat during games, but he's had both hips replaced and if he were to squat, he couldn't stand.
"Even sitting in a chair, it's hard for me to get up," he said. "The stool is up high and that way I don't have to stand, which I don't like to do all the time. I can just (slide off and) get up quickly. If you saw me get down on the floor and try to get up, you'd have a nice story in itself."
"Naturally, we all understand the magnitude of what happened there. But kids probably have the ability to bounce back as well as anybody. ... There's some healing that has to be done, but you have to heal, you have to move on."
- Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury on his team rebounding from a last-second 67-66 loss to No. 5 Kentucky, its first of the year.