Q-and-A with UCLA’s Josh Smith
In one year UCLA has gone from a team that finished 14-18 and missed the NIT to a legitimate Pac-10 title contender with an 18-7 record.
Josh Smith is one of the biggest reasons for the Bruins’ improvement.
A 6-foot-10, 305-pound freshman, Smith is averaging 10.6 points and 6.3 boards for the Bruins despite playing just 20.3 minutes a game. On Saturday he tallied 15 points and grabbed six rebounds in UCLA’s victory over Oregon State, marking the seventh time in nine games he’s scored in double figures.
“I’m starting to be more aggressive than usual,” Smith said. “I’m really trying to utilize my size.”
Smith’s surge is paying huge dividends for the Bruins, who have won nine of their last 10 contests. At 9-3 in league play, UCLA trails Pac-10 leader Arizona by just one game. A Kent, Wash. native, Smith spoke with Yahoo! Sports this week.
Q: Describe the feeling in the locker room. Why are things going so well for you guys?
A: “We’re peaking at just the right time. The team chemistry is there. Practices are going better. Basically, we’re using last year’s season as motivation.”
Q: Even though you weren’t around last season, is the 14-18 record something that gets brought up a lot?
A: “Not really anymore, but before the start of the season, we had our goals: To win the Pac-10 championship and go to the NCAA tournament. We knew there was a really big question mark hovering over our program. They went 14-18 last year. How are they going to rebound? It’s a rebuilding year. We’ve never felt like we were rebuilding. We’re just out there playing.”
Q: You’ve been playing particularly well lately? How good do you feel out there?
A: “I feel good. It’s mainly just about me being more aggressive. We have nine guys on our team – nine scholarship guys – that can step up and have a big game at any time. It could be me, it could be Reeves (Nelson) or Malcolm (Lee) or even someone coming off the bench. It doesn’t matter who scores as long as we get the win.”
Q: Foul problems limited your production early in the season, but lately that issue appears to have been thwarted. Why?
A: “I’m watching film and I’m comparing myself from the first half of the season to the second half. As long as you stay low and show your hands the refs won’t call fouls as much.”
Q: Earlier this season you lost four games in a row. One of them was a one-point setback against then-No. 2 Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse. You guys followed up that impressive performance with a home loss to Montana. Did any panic set in after that?
A: “No. We always knew we were a good team. We’re not a team that goes around and says, ‘Oh, we almost beat the No. 2 team in the country.’ We just worry about the next game we play. All we’re focusing on right now is Stanford and Cal and our overall goal of winning the Pac-10.”
Q: How has it been playing for Ben Howland?
A: “Great. He likes this team. We all like each other. It’s a good group of guys. We all have the same goals. It’s an us-against-the-world mentality. We all chill together. We all do everything together. We’re really close.”
Q: Along with facing tough opponents in games, you also go up against some pretty stiff competition in practice each day with the Wear twins, who are sitting out this season after transferring from North Carolina. What effect have they had on you and the other post players?
A: “Going against the Wear twins helps guys like me and Reeves out a lot. They’re quick. They’re just as tall as us and they get up and down the court. They’re really making a difference in our team even though you don’t see them out there on the court.”
Q: Last thing, the Pac-10 is widely regarded as the worst of the Big Six conferences. With your first college season almost in the books, what’s your take on the league?
A: “We have a good conference. Everyone has their opinion and what they think. But all the teams in our league know how good our conference is. We don’t need to watch ESPN and hear them talk about all the other conferences and then talk about how we’re having a down year this year. We all know how good our conference is.”