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Howland Plans to Bench Thompson for Morrison

Times Staff Writer

With the Bruins mired in a five-game losing streak, Coach Ben Howland plans to bench leading scorer Dijon Thompson in favor of Brian Morrison on Thursday against Washington State at Pauley Pavilion.

“That’s really to get us a better start defensively,” said Howland, holding out a slight chance he’d change his mind.

Thompson, playing out of position at shooting guard while freshman Trevor Ariza starts at small forward, averages 14.1 points a game.

But he isn’t a strong defender and has only five rebounds in the last four games.

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Howland cited the Bruins’ poor rebounding and ballooning defensive field-goal percentage in recent games as reasons for their losing streak.

“Those are two things we can control the most,” said Howland, who met individually with the top 11 players Monday to discuss the state of the season.

Morrison hasn’t shot well in the two games since he returned from a hamstring injury.

“Brian brings a general toughness and blocks out well even though he’s not 100% [after the injury],” Howland said.

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Howland said Thompson probably would play almost as many minutes, though matching his 34-minute average as a reserve might be difficult even if he spells Ariza and T.J. Cummings as well as Morrison.

Asked whether he recalled pulling his leading scorer out of the lineup before, Howland paused and said no, but pointed out Thompson is shooting 40.6%.

“Leading scorer is great, but it’s a number of things that add up,” he said.

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When players talk about being “in the zone,” they don’t mean the kind UCLA is in.

The last five opponents -- Arizona, Stanford, California, USC and St. John’s -- all have played a considerable amount of zone against the Bruins, who have struggled to score.

One answer is to shoot down a zone, but Thompson, who leads the team with 28 three-point baskets, is shooting only 30.8% from long range in Pacific 10 Conference games and the Bruins have made less than 30% of their three-point shots in conference play.

It would help if Morrison regains his touch.

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Another option would seem to be reserve guard Janou Rubin, who has made 12 of 24 three-pointers this season.

Howland is also focusing on forcing the zone to shift with passing and penetration and plans to use a smaller lineup at times against zones, with Ariza at power forward.

Trying to run more is another option, but Howland noted a snag in that plan.

“The only way to get transition baskets is to get [defensive] stops and rebounds,” he said.

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Washington State has never beaten UCLA in Los Angeles and is 0-38 in Pauley Pavilion.

But the Cougars, playing a deliberate defensive style under new Coach Dick Bennett, have beaten Cal, USC and Arizona State and played Arizona to a four-point loss.

“They’re a dangerous team, no question,” Howland said.

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