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Ben Ball Roundup: Early Season Lessons/Wolverines Week

With no football game to prep for this weekend, this week is shaping up to be our first major Ben Ball game week of 2008-09 season. Bruins have a huge game coming up this Thursday night against Michigan Wolverines. Even though because of our high pre season ranking, we will probably head into this game as “favorites” in the eyes of many casual basketball observers around the country (who are probably already looking ahead to a possible UCLA-Duke matchup in the finals), I think this game is a huge question mark for our Ben Ball warriors.

Let’s just get this out of the way. I hope no one here on Bruin Nation is thinking about Duke after this post. This week should be all about Wolverines.

Given our recent history against John  Beilein, I think this game will be a toss-up against a much improved Wolverines team. They will be fired up and ready to go all out to make a national statement in Beilein’s second year in what at least in my book is the marquee All Sports school in the Big-10 (in essence UCLA’s twin brother from the Midwest). Kevin Pearson from the Press Enterprise has a brief capsule on Bruin’s familiar opponent:

This will be the seventh straight season that UCLA has played Michigan, so there's no lack of familiarity. But the connection goes deeper than that.

Second-year Michigan coach John Beilein, who came to Ann Arbor a year ago, also faced UCLA when he was leading West Virginia with his unusual 1-3-1 attack the two years before that. So these teams really should know the score.

"Well, Josh (Shipp) does and Darren (Collison) and Alfred (Aboya) do," Howland said.

"You have to stay focused on what they're doing," Shipp said. "They do a lot of backdoor cuts. They're just waiting for you to break down."

Twice with West Virginia, Beilein's teams beat UCLA. Then last year the Bruins turned it around in Ann Arbor, thanks to a 41-18 run over the final 14 minutes for a 69-54 win.

"They're a much-improved team," Howland said of the Wolverines, led by 6-foot-5 sophomore guard Manny Harris, averaging 28 points in his two starts.

We will have more on other Michigan players later this week. But one immediate question Coach Howland will have to answer is who will be guarding Harris. Given Howland’s comments in the Daily Bruin, it seems like JH might get a shot:

Just two games into his college career, Howland said that he has a huge role defensively in store for Holiday: the task of guarding the other team’s best player. It is the role that former Bruins Arron Afflalo and Russell Westbrook played during their time at UCLA, and it is the assignment Howland said Holiday will draw this season due to the physical gifts he possesses.

“For us to be the team that we want to be, bottom line is (he’s going to have to do that),” Howland said. “There’s going to be games where he’s going to be guarding great players, and there’s going to be times where it’s going to be hard. But he’ll figure it out.”

Howland noted that it is not an easy task for the young freshman to undertake, and there will be a learning curve, as was the case with both Afflalo and Westbrook early in their careers.

Howland said that during Afflalo’s first season, the freshman struggled with the assignment and had some off nights defensively. The same was said of Westbrook, who evolved from an average defender to the Pac-10 defensive player of the year.

Yet, Howland cautioned that Holiday’s learning curve will be much shorter than the other two Bruins and that much of the experience and learning will have to be done on the fly.

“It’s always hard when you’re changing levels, whether you’re going from high school to college or college to the NBA,” Howland said. “It’s just different. There’s no doubt that Jrue’s going to end up being a really good player for us. He’s thrusted into a very difficult role right away, and I think I alluded to this after the game – I’m expecting him to come in here and guard their best player on the other team.”

For many of us this will be our first opportunity to see JH and rest of the freshmen. That’s some treat if we get to see JH taking on Manny Harris in our first true national telecast (ESPNU doesn’t really count) of the season. At this point given what I have read on paper, it seems like a scary proposition for us. If any of you have a different thought on it and want to talk me down, would love to hear your takes in the comment threads.

Meanwhile, JH and his team-mates have been going through grueling film sessions following the (expected) not so polished performances in their first two games of the season:

Gordon said before the film session, he thought UCLA's five freshmen played well against the Redhawks. And after the film session?

"We've got a lot of work to do," Gordon said. "You can see it come together on some plays, but on other plays you'd just be like, `It's the beginning of the season.' "

Howland is a detail-oriented coach who sweats every little morsel, including reminding players to wear sweat shirts if the weather is chilly.

So, when it comes to watching tape after a mistake-filled performance, which comes in the second college game for UCLA's freshmen, the rewind button gets a workout.

"You have the rewind button. Horrible," Gordon said. "When he sees something he doesn't like, he will let you know about it. And you will see six, seven, eight times.

"I got it coach. Rewind. I got it. I got it, coach. Rewind. We'll just watch this one more time. Rewind. Actually, you know what? Rewind. All right coach. We're good. It's tough. You definitely know what you did wrong."

And I am sure this constant drilling down of details will be relentless on CBH’s part through rest of this season with his young warriors.

Hope our kids are paying attention and focused with a sense of urgency because if they aren’t ready, they will be playing for third place after Thursday night is over. Hey, it won’t be the end of the world because it’s the same experience we went though in 2005-06.  We took it in the chin against Memphis at MSG and then barely got out alive against Drexel courtesy of last second free throws from Jordan Farmar. We went through few more ups and downs during that regular season with a team featuring a mix of veterans and young players who gelled later in the season culminating in a memorable run. I expect us to go through same growing pains this season and will not be surprised at all if we run into a massive challenge this Thursday night.

Let’s just hope our guys are taking in all the lessons Howland is relentlessly teaching this early in the season.