Leaner, greener and, apparently, much meaner than a year ago, the defending national champion UCLA basketball team opens practice tonight in an appropriately raucous manner.
For the first time in the program's rich history--and for the last time in five years, until Oct. 15 falls on a weekend again--the Bruins will hold midnight madness at Pauley Pavilion, kicking off an hourlong practice at 12:01 a.m. Sunday, the earliest moment allowed by the NCAA.
Gone are last year's three centerpiece seniors--Ed O'Bannon, Tyus Edney and George Zidek.
In their place, say the holdover Bruin players, is the swaggering style and attitude--triggered by juniors Cameron Dollar and Charles O'Bannon--of a team eager to make its own mark.
Freshman frontcourt player Jelani McCoy already has gained attention with his shot blocking and bellowing in summer action. Emotional sophomore forward Kris Johnson, slowed by injuries last year, has dropped about 40 pounds, is down to about 215, and expects to showcase a new level of play. And Dollar and O'Bannon are promising a blistering pace from Day 1.
"Last year, we were the nice team, America's team, we were always smiling," O'Bannon said. He and sophomore Toby Bailey are the two returning starters. "But, this team will be a little more boisterous on the court--there will be some dunks and yells, and our defensive intensity will be even stronger than it was last year.
"The younger guys are in, and the older guys, the more conservative, are gone. We're a loud bunch of guys."
Coach Jim Harrick says he has noticed the attitude adjustment and has no reason to believe that this year's team has allowed the school's 11th national title to breed overconfidence.
Although the center position is being contested by junior Ike Nwankwo, sophomore omm'A Givens and McCoy, and although, once again, outside shooting is a question mark--freshman guard Brandon Loyd may be the answer--Harrick says he expects this squad to be one of his most interesting.
"I think this team wants to make its own identity," Harrick said. "And I relish that. I hope they do."
Tonight's festivities begin at about 10 p.m., and the Bruin players are itching to get out on the Pauley floor for the first time since the banner-raising ceremony two days after UCLA won the title in April.
"I kind of went through withdrawal, not being out in front of the crowd for so long," Bailey said. "I think I want it to be kind of a coming-out party for this team, so we can get our own identity through this thing. So they can see we're still a great team even without the three seniors we've lost."