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September 16, 2010

Q&A with James Whitford, Part III

GOAZCATS.com caught up with UA assistant James Whitford for a Q&A. In part three, Whitford talks about the off-season progress of the Wildcats' upperclassmen.

GOAZCATS.com: Moving forward to the juniors, Kyle Fogg has finally put on the weight you guys want. What has that done to his game?

James Whitford: It's helped him. Kyle has probably been as impressive as anyone in fall workouts. He's physically stronger, and that's made the difference. He's really worked hard to develop his left hand, which was an area of weakness for him. His shot, which was good last year, he's worked on and I think he's continued to improve.

But Kyle's biggest step forward has been his maturity. In all fairness to Kyle, a year ago he didn't know us and it's always a little bit awkward when you didn't recruit a guy out of high school and he's playing for a coach that doesn't know him and he's wondering what that means for him. Trust in any relationship has to be earned and I think we needed to earn Kyle's trust and Kyle needed to earn our trust and I think that has happened on both parts.

I'm really proud of Kyle for his maturity and leadership; he's much more committed to being a great player now than at any time since I've known him. I think he's made great strides in that area and I'm confident he's going to have a very, very good junior year.

GOAZCATS.com: When Kyle is at his best, there's no question the team is much better. He did struggle with his consistency at times last year; what makes you think that won't be an issue this season?

James Whitford: He's more mature. How that relates to basketball is if Kyle missed four shots in a row a year ago, I think that really threw him off. If we pulled him out of the game for any reason and he was frustrated with it, I think he let that frustration effect his performance much more. I think he's going to be much more advanced in that area this year.

Basketball is a game that you have to be totally in the moment. If you miss four shots in a row, you shoot the fifth shot the same. If you're up by 10, you play the same way as you would if you're down by 13.

You can't let the ebbs and flows of the game impact your psyche and your ability to compete at your best. That's an area that Kyle has improved a lot and I think that's going to help his consistency. Kyle has really matured in the past year and we're all proud of him for it.

GOAZCATS.com: What do you want him to really pick up on between now and the season?

James Whitford: He's got to be a better defender. Last year, that was an area that we were frustrated in Kyle with and he was probably frustrated that he wasn't better in that area. I think he wants to be a good defender now and a year ago I think it was more important for him to score than it was to play both sides of the court. I think Kyle is much more committed to that area now.

We have to find someone on the perimeter that's going to be committed to being a defensive stopper. Kevin (Parrom) can do it for the bigger perimeter players, but we need to find someone that can do it for the quick guards. We're hoping Kyle can be in that role, Kyle wants to be in that role, and it's going to be really important to our winning that Kyle or someone can step up and take that spot. Kyle really wants it.

GOAZCATS.com: You said before that you really wanted him to improve his ball handling this summer. How much better has he gotten?

James Whitford: He's improved a lot. The ball handling in particular was the left hand and he really worked on it all summer. He's coming in today to work on it. He's committed to developing his left hand that's going to make a big difference for him. You can't play him just one way now, whereas you probably could a year ago.

GOAZCATS.com: Brendon Lavender, how's he coming along?

James Whitford: He's had a very minor injury that's limited him, so we haven't seen as much of him but he's a very talented player; everyone knows that. His performance has been very up and down but in the second half last year, in conference play, he shot 45%, give or take, from three. I think that really helped his confidence heading into the off-season, and he worked very hard in the off-season.

He was really committed to working on his game and is in great shape. We can't watch open gyms but I know what the players tell me and they all say he's playing the best he's ever played. He's been out for a few weeks but he'll be back before practice starts and I'm excited to see Lav go out and be the player he's capable of being.

GOAZCATS.com: It would be easy for a guy like Lavender, with his situation, deciding to transfer and go somewhere that he'd have guaranteed playing time. What does the fact that he's stuck it out say about him?

James Whitford: We all think the world of Lav. He's as high of a character person as we've all coached. He's a wonderful guy and would do anything for his teammates and anything for his team. I think him not leaving here speaks highly of him. He's really determined to make it here and I think this is a big year for him, he knows it, and he's excited about the challenge.

GOAZCATS.com: I think Lavender's situation can be pretty much summed up by saying he's capable of performing for you guys, but he just needs to translate what he does in pickup and practice to games.

James Whitford: Right, and he's more confident than he's ever been before and he's more secure with himself than he's ever been. It's more competitive this year than it's been before - there's more guys capable of playing - but that's a good thing. That's going to bring out the best in everybody and it's going to bring out the best in Lav.

GOAZCATS.com: How's Alex Jacobson's progress?

James Whitford: Tree had a good summer. He really worked hard on his body, he continued to get stronger and last year he was a very good 15 to 17 foot shooter and we've really worked hard with Tree to stretch that out so he can stretch defenses to the point where he can shoot a three, which he's done.

In the fall workouts, if you don't guard him out there, he can shoot it. I think that really helps him. Other than that, it's just going to be what Tree does really well, which is being the smartest player in the gym.

Knowing how to get guys open with screens, defending with his size by not allowing people good post position and using his body to get rebounds. Tree has had a really good summer and I think he's ready for a good junior year.

GOAZCATS.com: Do you see him having a similar role as last year?

James Whitford: I would say with him, and everybody, it's premature for me to make that statement in September. He's going to get what he earns between now and when we play our first game. He's in position to have a good year and it's up to him to earn it between now and then.

GOAZCATS.com: In the spring you talked about how Jamelle Horne's attitude had improved and that he was working really hard. Last week, Chris Rounds told me that Jamelle has continued to keep it up since that time. Would you agree with that?

James Whitford: Yeah, Jamelle has made as big of a jump maturity wise as any player I've coached in a period of six months. I think he's had an excellent off-season; he stayed here all 15 weeks of summer and that was his own choosing, not ours. He's made great progress towards his degree in the last year.

At one point I think he was someone you wouldn't look at as likely to graduate and now he should graduate at the end of May. He's taking 15 credits this fall, he's on top of every class, and he's much more responsible in every category of his life. It's amazing how much that correlates to playing well on the floor as well.

GOAZCATS.com: What's the difference in his game now?

James Whitford: He's really stronger; he's gained 15 to 20 pounds of muscle, and he's really worked on his ability to go by people off the dribble, which I think we would all say was his weakness a year ago. He's trying to be a more powerful, explosive drive, and he worked on it all off-season and he's gotten a lot better at it.

He's better off the dribble than he was a year ago and he's still a terrific shooter. Most importantly for Jamelle, the thing that effects his game is, can he provide a consistent performance, regardless of if we're up, we're down, his shots are going in, they're not going in, he's getting shots, he's not getting shots, can he be the same?

Can he play to the best of his ability regardless of the circumstances? And because of his maturity level and his humility this year, I think he's really in position to do that. That will affect his playing time, his performance and his future, but our winning more than anything.

GOAZCATS.com: When you would push him a year ago, how was his response to that compared to what it is now?

James Whitford: He accepts criticism in a way now that he didn't a year ago. I actually met with him this morning and we talked about it. We talk a lot with our players about having the character to learn, not letting pride get in the way of learning, not letting ego get in the way of learning, and those issues may have come for Jamelle a year ago, but he's made great strides.

He's more humble, hungry and determined than I've ever seen him. He's in a good place academically, socially and athletically; the best he's ever been since he's been at Arizona.

GOAZCATS.com: I'm guessing he understands the difference a good year and a bad year will have on the next 10-plus years of his life.

James Whitford: He does, and the funny thing about basketball is the less you're focused on that, the better off you play. What he's got to be committed to is the process. He can't control what happens in April right now. What he can control is what happens right now.

He's got to stay focused on having a great weight lift Friday morning, a great conditioning workout Friday afternoon, great skill work Friday night, he's got to eat right, get rest, take care of his books academically, treat his body right over the weekend, and come back and have another great week.

When you stay focused on the present as an athlete, that will put Jamelle in position to have the year he wants to have.

* Follow Josh Gershon on Twitter.

Josh Gershon


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