UCLA returns 'home' to Sports Arena after more than a month away

LOS ANGELES -- It's back to kinda-home sorta-sweet, kinda-home for the UCLA basketball team when the Bruins face Pac-12 newcomer Utah on Thursday at the Sports Arena.

Certainly the jury is still out on just how sweet the Sports Arena is and whether it's actually UCLA's home is also up for debate, but the Bruins will be playing there for the first time since a Dec. 23 victory over Richmond meaning it has been more than a month away from the arena they are calling home while Pauley Pavilion undergoes a makeover.

Since then, UCLA has played at Stanford, California, USC, Oregon State and Oregon and had two games at the Honda Center in Anaheim. It has been so long since the Bruins have played on their "home" court that center Joshua Smith joked "I hope it's not too dusty."

It might be difficult to remember way back before Christmas, but UCLA has won four consecutive games at the Sports Arena and is winless against Division I teams away from Southern California, so the Bruins are actually looking forward to a return to the Sports Arena even if they've forgotten what the place looks like.

"I was thinking about that the other day, I was like, 'Man, I hope I still have the feel for the Sports Arena,' " guard Lazeric Jones said. "I felt like I started to get a good feel for the court and then now it’s like we’ve been gone for so long, it’s different."

By the time this weekend is over, UCLA (10-9, 3-4 Pac-12) will be halfway through the Pac-12 schedule, but these will be the first Pac-12 games at the Sports Arena. Such has been the nomadic life in the UCLA road show this season.

"It’s definitely been strange and going back there is going to be different just because we haven’t played there in so long," forward David Wear said. "It is supposed to be our home gym but it's going to be a little different at first going back there after so long away."

Luckily for the Bruins, they get to face the 11th-place team in the Pac-12 while they re-acclimate. Utah (5-14, 2-5) is coming off of a 64-43 victory over Arizona State but had lost four in a row before that. The Utes will also be without leading scorer Larry Watkins, who was dismissed from the team last week for a violation of team rules.

With a first-year coach in Larry Krystkowiak and 6-foot-10 center Jason Washburn the only current player averaging in double figures scoring, Utah is clearly in a rebuilding mode and that could be just what the doctor ordered for UCLA, coming off two disappointing losses at Oregon State and Oregon. In the latter game, the Bruins blew a 13-point halftime lead and lost, 75-68.

"I just really think that we can’t take any possessions off," guard Jerime Anderson said. "Mentally and with our intensity. As we saw in the game against Oregon we got a little lackadaisical and the next thing you know they are right back in the game and they have the lead, even. We really need to focus in on every possession as if it’s the last possession of the game because it will have an effect on the outcome of the game."

Getting back at home should help ease some of the distractions that caused UCLA to lose focus. The crowds on the road, especially at Oregon, were extremely vocal and helped the Ducks rally back and win that game. It was by far the loudest crowd UCLA had heard all season.

The Sports Arena crowds certainly aren't going to help much. UCLA is averaging an announced attendance of only 4,674 at the Sports Arena this season -- a number that would rank 11th in the Pac-12 if the Bruins were not counting the 7,447 they are averaging at the Honda Center.

Because these are conference games and because school is in session, the crowds figure to be a little bigger, though the players aren't expecting much.

"It’s hard," Smith said. "I’ve talked to students. It was a lot easier at Pauley. You don’t have to worry about parking. You don’t have to worry about finding a ride out there. When you live on campus, it’s just a walk. They say it’s kind of a hassle to get out there from here with traffic."

The Bruins will also have to deal with the traffic. For the first time since the Nov. 28 game against Pepperdine and only the second time all season, the Bruins will not be staying in a hotel the night before the game. Because school is in session, some players have class Thursday so the team is traveling downtown Thursday afternoon.

"It’s always good to be able to sleep in your own bed and then go to a game," Jones said. "I love my teammates, but I kind of like to have my moments to myself sometimes. It’s cool with me to be able to stay in my room."

The Sports Arena has not been the most ideal of home venues because it is not on campus and it has been criticized because it is an old, dated building, but after a month-long absence, even a place like that has made the Bruins a little homesick.

"Definitely it’s going to be nice to get back in there," forward Travis Wear said. "We’ve been playing all over so just to get back to what we’re used to and it’s just down the street so it feels like a home for us.

It’s going to feel real good. I’m happy that we can stay here and not have to go stay in a hotel the night before a game. It’s going to be nice. I think we take it for granted."