LOS ANGELES--It's a few days before the UCLA basketball team departs on a week-long trip to China and Ben Howland is beginning to get a bit nervous.
Sure there are the normal concerns about international travel such as the time change, the cultural no-nos and the quality of the local tap water, but what's making Howland most nervous is the fact that he doesn't have any game film on two of the three teams the Bruins will face in China.
UCLA will face Tsinghua University Aug. 25, Shanghai Jiao Tong University Aug. 27 and the Shanghai Sharks Aug. 28 as part of the China-USA University Sports week arranged by the Pac-12 Conference and the Federation of University Sports of China.
It is a cultural exchange trip, but doesn't include game tape exchanges and Howland, a notorious game-film studier, is feeling a little lost in how to prepare. He says it isn't that big of a deal, the trip is about more than just basketball games, but then gets excited when he remembers that UCLA's first practice in China will be a scrimmage against Tsinghua University.
"It will be good for us to scrimmage against them," Howland says, and when he's asked if he intends on filming the session, he can't help but crack a wry smile and nod his head. "Yeah," he said.
The Bruins aren’t quite sure what to expect on their side of the court, either.
This is a new cast of characters that will enter this season with high hopes in large part to Howland landing the No. 1 recruiting class in the country. This trip was to mark the unveiling of that group, but Shabazz Muhammad will not make the trip because of an ongoing NCAA investigation into his eligibility and Tony Parker is not expected to play as he recovers from a hamstring injury.
Howland said there is no timetable on the Muhammad investigation and that he and the school are doing everything they can to cooperate, as are Muhammad and his family. Muhammad has not practiced with the team because players under investigation are allowed to practice for only 45 days and Howland did not want to start that clock.
"We’re very hopeful that this will be resolved in the not too distant future," Howland said.
Kyle Anderson another top freshman, is still recovering from surgery on his thumb, though he will play as long as it doesn't give him any problems.
"We want to win every game we play," Howland said. "But we won’t be playing the game like it’s the NCAA Tournament and he has to play even if his thumb got tweaked, no."
The Bruins will take eight scholarship players the three walk-ons. Howland said he figures the offense will be a head of the defense on this trip because that is what they have been working on in their 10 practices.
They've practiced in-bounds plays, breaking the press and running set offenses against different types of zones. And they've practiced their transition offense, something Howland said is going to be a big part of the team this season.
The up-tempo style and limited number of bodies will mean extra minutes for healthy players and that means a tough test for center Joshua Smith, who has struggled with weight and conditioning issues the past two seasons.
Smith said earlier this summer that he had lost 15 pounds and teammates said he continues to work hard during and after practices, but Howland said Smith is still not where the coaches would like him to be.
"I think he’s got a long way to go to get to where we want him to ideally be," Howland said. "We are less than two months away from when we open up our regular practices so there is a lot of work to be done between now and then. I think this trip will be good for Josh, to give him a barometer of where he is with his conditioning and where he needs to get to because he’s going to play a lot."
So as the Bruins are aware that they will use this trip as a gauge to see where they stand, they still would like to know something about the opponents they will face.
Howland has reached out to several coaches who have taken teams to China in recent years and some of the players have heard stories about how the Chinese teams play, so they have a general idea of what to expect.
Some of the main warnings issued to the Bruins are that the Chinese teams play a much more physical style and that the officiating will be heavily slanted in favor of the home teams.
"We know the style of game is going to be a little different," UCLA forward David Wear said. "We’ve been told don’t expect to get any calls or it might not be fair in your eyes. They play physical and we’re looking to play physical, too."
The Bruins are also aware that things got a little too physical last year when Georgetown made a similar trip to China. The Hoyas ended up in a melee-style brawl that included kicking, pushing, punching and throwing chairs. Chinese fans threw water bottles at Georgetown players as they left the court.
It was an ugly incident replayed numerous times on television and one that nobody wants to see repeated. The Bruins say they are prepared to take the high road when the play gets rough and the calls are going the other way.
"It’s stuff you just have to play through," guard Tyler Lamb said.
The trip will include numerous non-basketball related activities as well. The Bruins plan on visiting historical and cultural landmarks such as the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace. But this is a basketball trip and it will help the Bruins get through some growing pains a little sooner than they might have as the NCAA allowed UCLA 10 practices before the trip.
"I think it’s a big advantage," Lamb said. "We got a certain number of practices and we’re going to have three games under our belt already versus other teams who just have workouts. We’ll have that glue together and we’ll go into the season already knowing who to hit and the personnel of the team."
Howland said he intends to use a variety of different lineups to try and assess the on-court chemistry of certain players and that he hasn't thought about starting lineups. Those things are secondary for this trip, he said.
"The big goal is I want our kids to have fun," Howland said. "I want them to really enjoy and see the culture of China. This is a cultural exchange. This is not just about playing basketball, it’s about us exchanging between the two cultures so we want to be as helpful as we can be to help them learn about us as we will learn about them."