Pauley Pavilion is a legendary college basketball arena. It's the house that John Wooden built. It's the arena that has been home to world-class players like Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Bill Walton, Henry Bibby, Baron Davis, Kevin Love... and so many more. But Thursday night, if the Runnin' Utes focus on the game at hand and are not intimidated by the ghosts of UCLA past, Utah should come out of Pauley Pavilion with their first win in Los Angeles since 1961.
The Utes are 3-3 on the season away from the friendly confines of the Jon M. Huntsman Center, where Utah is undefeated and boasts a 15-game winning streak. The road has been another matter in recent years.
In Thursday's game, Utah is simply the better team, and it's not just the 32-point (71-39) pasting they laid on the Bruins in Salt Lake City (which is the Utes' largest margin of victory in a Pac-12 game). UCLA is not very good. The Bruins are not playing particularly well together this season, and their talent, while considerable, isn't always living up to their recruiting rankings. Of particular concern (for Bruins fans) is their point guard Bryce Alford, who has been shooting UCLA out of several games this season.
UCLA has played one common non-league opponent, UC Riverside. Utah beat Riverside 88-42 in SLC, while UCLA beat them 77-66. The Bruins only non-conference home loss also happened to come against the only decent team they faced in the early season, Gonzaga. So far this season, UCLA has faced four ranked opponents and hasn't beaten one. They did, however, beat Stanford and Cal at home, both of which are solid ball clubs.
UCLA has five players averaging double figures, led by Alford's 15.8 points per game, but in Salt Lake City, the Bruins managed just one player in double figures, forward Tony Parker's 12 points. If Utah plays the same defense on the road, and the old adage is that defense travels, the Utes should be in good shape. However, don't expect Alford to go 0-10, 0-4 from outside the arc again. Utah just needs to contest every one of his shots and force him to take difficult shots with hands in his face. Alford is a good shooter and if allowed to take open threes, he'll hit a few and UCLA could feed off that momentum.
As a team, UCLA is fifth in the league in scoring offense (71.9 points per game), yet down at 10th in scoring defense (70.1 points per game allowed). That +1.8 scoring margin doesn't leave the Bruins a huge margin for error from game to game, even at home. And while Utah leads the Pac-12 in field goal percentage, UCLA is dead last (41.9 percent shooting as a team). Another bad sign for the Bruins? Utah leads the Pac-12 in three-point shooting (41.7 percent, almost matching UCLA's overall shooting percentage), and UCLA is ninth in defending the three-point shot (35.7 percent).
In the Jon M. Huntsman Center, Utah out-rebounded the vaunted baby blue Bruins 42-28, a +14 rebounding margin. If the Utes can continue to scrap and claw for rebounds, good things happen. Jakob Poeltl, Utah's freshman phenom, will have to play better than he has recently. Against UCLA, Poeltl turned in nine points and 10 rebounds, while Delon Wright pitched in seven boards of his own. Utah's guards need to chase down long rebounds and help the inside players with every carom they can corral.
On the road, especially in Pauley Pavilion, Utah won't draw the kind of fouls that limited inside players like Parker and Kevon Looney. Additionally, with the success they had with Parker inside, expect UCLA to start the game pounding the ball inside to try and get Utah's bigs in foul trouble. Parker scored 10 points after halftime when the Bruins decided to play inside-out, rather than outside-in. Poeltl, especially, will have to play solid defense without getting cheap fouls. (However, a few well-used fouls could be part of the defensive strategy, as Looney and Parker are dismal free throw shooters, .642 and .456 respectively. Make them earn their points.)
But UCLA can be a dangerous team at home. The Bruins are currently 9-1 in Pauley, while they're just 2-8 away. The Utes don't want to be win number 10, because their chance at Utah's first Pac-12 title hinges on keeping pace with Arizona. (Plus, a win in Pauley will turn some heads with the West Coast media.)
Utah's game against UCLA tips off at 7 p.m. MT on ESPN2. Utes fans will be treated to Dave Pasch and Bill Walton hurling insults at each other while also calling the game.
No, it's not a Valentines Day gift or the latest gadget from iRobot. But he is a scoring machine. In the last game against Washington, forward Jordan Loveridge, the player most fans and pundits credit with the re-establishing of the Runnin' Utes as a presence on the in-state recruiting front, ensured his place in Utah history by becoming the 37th player to score 1,000 points in a Utes uniform. JLove averages 11.2 points and 3.6 rebounds per game, while shooting 43.8 percent from the floor, a blazing 49.1 from behind the three-point arc, and 83.3 from the free throw line.
Taylor Torching 'Em:
In conference play, guard Brandon Taylor leads the team in scoring at 12.6 points per game, shooting a scorching 55 percent from the floor, 62 percent on three-pointers, and 92 percent at the line. Overall, Taylor averages 10.7 points, 3.3 assists, 2.6 rebounds, and 1.5 steals per game.