UCLA is finally leaving Pauley Pavilion after a six-game homestand. Here’s what to watch at 6:30 p.m. Thursday (Pac-12 Networks).
What’s at stake: The Bruins need to prove they can win in a road environment. With all but four games coming at home, it’s still hard to say how noise might affect these young players. This season, they have lost in front of a sparse Georgetown crowd in Brooklyn and won in front of an almost empty Reliant Stadium.
The one time UCLA faced a truly intimidating crowd was in its 78-69 loss to San Diego State on Dec. 1. Aztec fans packed Anaheim’s Honda Center that night, making up the vast majority 17,204 in attendance. Utah is averaging 7,380 at home this season, while Colorado brings in 10,252.
Shabazz Muhammad, for one, expects plenty of taunts concerning the NCAA investigation that kept him out for three games. He claims he likes it.
“If I’m not energized, that stuff gives me energy and gets me up real fast,” the star freshman said.
There’s also the simple issue of riding this win streak as far as it will go. Utah might not be too difficult, but Colorado has only lost two games at home since a 73-70 overtime loss to Texas A&M on Feb. 9, 2011.
“As soon as we lose, it’s just back to the same thing again,” UCLA freshman Jordan Adams said.
At a glance: Utah can be roughly defined as a statistical antithesis to UCLA’s up-tempo game. The Bruins lead the Pac-12 with 79.9 points per game; the Utes are 10th with 67.4. The Utes lead the Pac-12 in field-goal percentage defense at .354; the Bruins are 10th at .412.
But UCLA also has some a few very clear advantages. Its offense is significantly more efficient than Utah’s, ranked 15th nationally compared to 133rd (tempo-free stats via Ken Pomeroy). The Utes’ also rank dead last in the Pac-12 in average turnover margin (-3.8), due mostly to their defense’s inability to create them. The Bruins are easily the conference’s best at +2.4.
UCLA players said they noticed both Cal and Stanford trying to slow the game down to limit fast break opportunities, and expect more of the same in Salt Lake City.
“I think Utah’s going to try and do that more offensive end, where they want to slow the game down,” freshman point forward Kyle Anderson said. “Less scoring, probably more use of the shot clock. It makes it a lot more difficult, just more energy expended on defense.”
The potential effects of higher altitude may be overblown. Muhammad said he had no experience playing in thin air, but he did grow up in Las Vegas, which has an elevation of just over 2,000 feet. Salt Lake City sits at 4,226 feet, and Boulder, Colo., at 5,430. The low end of “high altitude” is considered to be around 5,000 feet, and altitude sickness can set in at around 8,000. (Granted, it wouldn’t take outright sickness to affect high-level athletic performance.)
Players to watch: Jordan Loveridge hasn’t been as incredible as some of his fellow Pac-12 freshmen, but Utah’s local boy has been a joy for fans. The state’s reigning Mr. Basketball has three double-doubles and also has 3-point range to stretch the floor. Center Jason Washburn scored 36 combined points on 16-of-29 shooting against Arizona and Arizona State; both play better post defense than the Bruins.
Jordan Adams has been relatively quiet for UCLA since entering conference play, going back-to-back games without a 3-pointer for the first time. He averaged 5.15 attempts from distance in 2012, but has taken just two since the new year. That number should tick up again this trip.
After adjusting for tempo, Utah actually allows more 3-point shots than all but three other Pac-12 teams (Arizona, Washington State, Colorado). In this regard, Stanford and Cal are among the conference’s three stingiest squads.