UCLA’s Bruin Road Show: An Early Assessment

Posted by rtmsf on December 5th, 2011

Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Pac-12 and Mountain West conferences. He filed this column after Texas’ win over UCLA Saturday afternoon in Los Angeles.

Things have been tough enough for the UCLA basketball team this season, without having its home court conspire against it. But, that’s exactly what happened Saturday afternoon as the Bruins hosted Texas at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, one of the temporary homes for UCLA this year as venerable old Pauley Pavilion undergoes much-needed renovations. Just after the under-four minute media timeout, as Longhorn forward Alexis Wangmene headed to the free throw line to shoot the front-end of a one-and-one, the entire arena was plunged into relative darkness due to an area-wide power surge. At that time, the Bruins were up 30-19 and had turned in its best 16-minute stretch of the season. Guards Lazeric Jones and Jerime Anderson had knocked down some threes. The Wear twins had been hitting the glass and scoring inside. And perhaps most importantly, the Bruins had been diving after loose balls, scrapping for every rebound, and defending like crazy, keeping the quicker Texas guards out of the lane – just generally outworking them to that point.

The LA Sports Arena Serves as UCLA's Home Venue This Season

Over the next 13-plus minutes, as the lights slowly reset to full-power, Texas had a chance in their huddle to start over. “We had a chance to regroup,” said the Longhorns’ freshman point guard Myck Kabongo. “Thank god for those lights. It was a turning point.” Despite, as one fan yelled out just as play resumed, “the greatest icing ever,” Wangmene hit both his free throws and the Longhorns played the final four minutes of the half with a new zeal. Kabongo in particular was like a different player, easily getting penetration against UCLA guards and finding open teammates, notching his first three assists of the day on Texas’ last four possessions of the half. By the intermission, UT has posted a quick 9-4 mini-run and cut the Bruin lead, which had been double-digits most of the first half, to just six. From there, the second half was a mere formality. Texas posted a 75% effective field goal percentage in the second half, the talented but confounding UCLA frontcourt duo of Joshua Smith and Reeves Nelson combined to play just four minutes, and Texas outscored UCLA 50-29 after the power outage.

In a season the UCLA marketing people have branded as the Bruin Road Show, Saturday was a nasty reminder about playing an entire season on the road. While such an outage could theoretically have just as easily happened at Pauley, you just get the feeling the basketball gods wouldn’t have allowed it. In front of the largest crowd that UCLA has attracted this season (6,177 people in a building with a capacity of 14,500), the road-tripping Bruins actually got good crowd support. At the first media timeout of the game, after Ben Howland‘s team had jumped out to a 15-6 lead, the crowd rose to its feet and gave the team a standing ovation.

But that’s for a Saturday afternoon game against a marquee opponent. What happens next Saturday when the Bruins shift to the Honda Center in Anaheim to host a relatively unappealing Penn team? Does that game draw anywhere near 6,000 people? How about a Wednesday in the middle of December when Eastern Washington comes calling? With the semester already complete, are UCLA students going to make the trek to the Sports Arena in rush hour traffic for that game? Are local UCLA alumni going to choose the basketball game or Christmas shopping? And if this team doesn’t improve drastically by conference play, how much audible support will it get to guide the players through the Pac-12 schedule? On Monday when the Bruins hosted Pepperdine, there were 34 students in the student section by tip-off and an announced crowd of 3,885. To put that in perspective, St. Bonaventure, a school located in Olean, New York, drew 3,488 fans for a Thursday night loss to Arkansas State last week.

To be fair, the experience for the fans at the Sports Arena, while just about as good as the old and little-used facility could provide, is simply not very good. Apart from the 17-mile drive from the UCLA campus into the belly of the beast of South Central Los Angeles, the facility features unadorned concrete concourses, folding chairs as the seats for the lower bowl, just one video display board at one end of the arena, and an old-school scoreboard that does little more than provide the score and time remaining. UCLA players aren’t much more appreciative of their temporary home either, as Smith went on record complaining about the age and appearance of the place, as well as its proximity to USC, the Bruins’ cross-town rival.

While by all accounts, the new Pauley is going to be well worth the struggles that these temporary hardships present, for now this is just another hurdle for this year’s Bruins. Already dealing with chemistry issues and underachievement from some of its stars, not being able to play a true home game must grind on the players. At the conclusion of Saturday’s game, UCLA players had to walk up the same tunnel to a similar bus as the Texas team would take back to its hotel; just another day in a season on the road.

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