Aggies are his No. 1 concern

Times Staff Writer

UCLA Coach Ben Howland spoke forcefully during a news conference Friday about the Texas A&M; inside players his Bruins will be facing today in the Wooden Classic at the Honda Center.

"Big," Howland said, "tough" and "a real handful."

Finally, Texas A&M; Coach Billy Gillispie had had enough. He took a microphone and quipped, "I assume the officials are in here."

He got a laugh, especially from one spectator -- 96-year-old John Wooden, who in his day knew something about working the officials.

Top-ranked UCLA (7-0) plays No. 6 Texas A&M; (7-1) at 11:30 a.m. in the first game of the annual showcase named after UCLA's legendary coach. USC will play George Washington in the second game.

Howland made his point, though. Joseph Jones, the Aggies' 6-foot-9, 250-pound forward, is "a monster," according to the UCLA coach. And Antanas Kavaliauskas, also 6-9 and 250, is "a man."

When it was suggested that UCLA's 6-9, 240-pound center Lorenzo Mata might be able to hold his own along with some help from 6-8, 230-pound Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Howland rolled his eyes and said, "Those guys are strong."

Yes, but there's a reason UCLA is ranked No. 1 in the country. Mata is not easily pushed away by anybody, and Mbah a Moute doesn't try to push because he is slipping into the lane when no one is looking to guard a center or grab a rebound.

In the Aggies, UCLA guard Arron Afflalo said the Bruins will find a Pacific 10-type team, one that is strong inside and unwilling to be pushed around.

"It will be a good test for us," Afflalo said. "I think Texas A&M; reminds us of Stanford."

Gillispie describes the Aggies' style, one developed in his three seasons in College Station, as something similar to UCLA's.

"I'm not anywhere near comparing us to UCLA," Gillispie said. "They are way ahead of us. But our styles and philosophies are similar. We want to grind you up defensively for 40 minutes, mainly man to man, and limit you to one shot or less per possession.

"On offense, we want to average one or more shots per possession and not turn the ball over. We like to be a higher-scoring team, but that must be based on our defense. Most of our guys are capable of scoring from different positions."

The Aggies are coming to Anaheim off their first loss, 64-52, to No. 9 Louisiana State on Tuesday. LSU also eliminated Texas A&M; in the second round of the NCAA tournament last year. LSU then went to the Final Four and lost to UCLA.

While Howland was making the Aggies' inside power his talking point, Gillispie's concern is senior point guard Acie Law IV.

Law is in a three-for-17 slump the last two games after averaging nearly 21 points in the previous four. Though he is two inches taller and 30 pounds heavier than UCLA's Darren Collison, the Bruins' point guard is so quick on defense that he is effective against larger opponents.

Afflalo also enjoys taking his turn on top scorers. It's the good-cop, bad-cop defense. Collison smiles and toys with an opponent until his quick hands are poised for a steal -- he has 25 so far. Afflalo, four inches taller and nearly as quick, defends with his body and contests every shot.

"This will be a big game for us," Mata said. "It's going to test our toughness."

After three consecutive games against outmanned Big West Conference opponents the Bruins are ready for that.

"No offense, but we need to see where we stand nationally," Collison said. "This will be fun."



vs. Texas A&M;, 11:30 a.m., Ch. 2

Site -- Honda Center.

Radio -- 570.

Records -- UCLA 7-0, Texas A&M; 7-1.

Update -- The sixth-ranked Aggies are facing top-10 teams out of conference consecutively for the first time. They lost Tuesday to No. 9 Louisiana State and now get No. 1 UCLA. Texas A&M; starts two seniors, two juniors and a sophomore, Antanas Kavaliauskas. The Bruins are 6-3 in the Wooden Classic.


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