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Early games can publicize or prepare

Times Staff Writer

UCLA plays host to Yale and Idaho State, Western Illinois and UC Davis, and USC will bring Oklahoma and Kansas to the Galen Center.

UCLA works against a team from George Washington that often presses but is picked to finish in the middle of the pack in the Atlantic 10 Conference, and USC travels to New York to play Memphis, a national title contender.

After most recently playing nationally ranked teams such as Texas A&M;, Nevada, Boston College, Kentucky and Duke at the Wooden Classic in Anaheim, UCLA has Davidson at the Honda Center this season.

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“Davidson is a very good team,” UCLA Coach Ben Howland says. “A very underrated team that will be in the NCAA. It is the kind of team that helps us prepare for the conference season.”

Maybe, but that matchup won’t sell many tickets. Plenty are still available for that Dec. 8 game.

The best nonconference game the Bruins have at Pauley Pavilion is against Texas on Dec. 2, but that wasn’t exactly a scheduling coup by UCLA. It is part of the Pacific 10 Conference/Big 12 Conference series.

UCLA is selling a holiday ticket package that would include those Idaho State, Western Illinois and UC Davis games -- but not Texas.

USC is playing host to a tournament at the Anaheim Convention Center and bringing in a solid field of Mississippi State, Southern Illinois, Miami of Ohio and South Alabama in a television-created event that USC Coach Tim Floyd said, “We didn’t think twice about doing. It appeals to a group of fans we have in Orange County that might not make it up to see a game.”

Howland and Floyd couldn’t have more different scheduling philosophies.

For Howland, it is mostly about preparation. If fans don’t get their hearts racing to see plodding Yale or deliberate Western Illinois, and if even if there are rows of empty seats at Pauley Pavilion because it’s not worth the drive to see the Bruins work on their zone offense or defensive principles, Howland sees himself as a coach and not a ticket salesman.

“Every game has its purpose,” Howland says. “For example, last year we played Sam Houston State because they did some things like Washington State.”

And it is hard to argue with the results. Howland has turned rollicking underachievers into a program that has made consecutive Final Fours and won two straight Pac-10 titles.

Floyd sees things differently.

“My scheduling philosophy has changed depending on the job where I was,” he says. “Scheduling here is more challenging than at Iowa State. Here, I’m trying to build this program like Arizona was built 20 years ago. At Iowa State we opened the doors and 14,200 people came in. Here, I’m trying to upgrade the profile, and even if we’re not quite ready for it, I needed a schedule that would create interest in our school.”

Both local programs have a freshman recruit that will draw national attention. UCLA center Kevin Love was the consensus high school player of the year at Lake Oswego, Ore., last season. USC guard O.J. Mayo, from Huntington, W. Va., was close behind and also brings a life story filled with conflict and drama.

Neither is expected to play more than one college season.

“We didn’t do this type of scheduling the first year,” Floyd says. “We upgraded last year and felt like in our third year we’d upgrade it again. Part of that is having O.J. I can’t imagine anyone having a tougher November than us, but players want that, recruits want that.

“The guys we recruit, they want to be playing on television, they want to play around the country. They want to see how our program is received around the country and how it performs.”

Lute Olson says that when he started at Arizona ambitious scheduling helped make up for what he perceived as a weakness in the middle and bottom of the Pac-10. Now it is part of the college recruiting landscape.

“When we make home visits now, the kids almost all want to see who we’re going to be playing,” Olson says. “They want the challenge and the publicity.”

Howland, whose potential 2008 recruiting class of guards Jrue Holliday, Jerime Anderson and Malcolm Lee and forward Drew Gordon is rated among the best nationally, feels the publicity recruits want comes from playing in the Final Four and winning league titles.

Besides playing host to Texas, UCLA will play in the CBE Classic, where the Bruins most likely will play Missouri, Michigan State or Maryland. The Bruins also play at Michigan.

Howland points out that some of the teams that didn’t sell out Pauley last year did pretty well.

Sam Houston State finished 21-10 and second in the Southland Conference. Long Beach State won the Big West. Oakland finished 19-14 and lost in the Mid-Continent Conference tournament finals. Brigham Young finished 25-9 and went to the NCAA tournament.

“I think our schedule is very good,” Howland says. “Davidson will be ranked at some point this year, George Washington has good athletes and they’ll press us. We need to see that.”

Olson, who has Arizona scheduled to play Virginia, Illinois, Texas A&M;, at Kansas, at Memphis and at Nevada Las Vegas in the preseason, says he may rethink his traditional high-stakes nonconference path.

“The conference is so much better now,” Olson says. “Maybe we don’t need to do quite as much out of conference. But you walk a fine line. You want to be prepared for the toughness of the league schedule and to do that you have to play tough out of the league.”

Including conference games, UCLA finished with the nation’s eighth-toughest schedule last season, according to the RPI computer formula that is used by the NCAA. USC’s was 43rd.

“We’ve toughened that up,” Floyd said, “because it is the responsible thing to do with a new arena and given that we don’t want to be an afterthought. We want to be talked about as much as we can.

“Having a bunch of freshmen and sophomores, it may not be the smart thing to do, but it is in our long-term best interests.”

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diane.pucin@latimes.com


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