The 20th-ranked Colorado Buffaloes are heading to Los Angeles on a trip likely to be highlighted by Saturday’s battle at USC, a showdown certain to be ripe with both antagonism and Pac-12 Conference ramifications.
Yet the luster that game will dim if the Buffs fail to take care of business Thursday night at UCLA.
Two weeks ago, the Buffs displayed the proper focus in a trip-opening win at Arizona State without looking too far ahead to a bigger battle two days later at Arizona, though the Buffs ultimately struggled against the Wildcats. Continuing to compete for the program’s first regular season Pac-12 championship will require wins on the road for CU, which has won its past two games at Pauley Pavilion after previously going 0-8 all-time at UCLA.
“We’re not going to overlook anybody, I can promise you that,” CU head coach Tad Boyle said. “But I was thinking the same thing with Washington State (before Washington). As a coach, don’t think those thoughts haven’t crept into my mind. But I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure that that doesn’t happen. And I think our players are mature enough to not let that happen, either.”
On paper, the Buffs should be able to take advantage of a Bruins team that has been up-and-down under first-year head coach Mick Cronin, who spent the previous 13 seasons as the head coach at Cincinnati, his alma mater. In Pac-12 play the Bruins have picked up a few impressive wins, including road victories at Washington and Oregon State.
However, UCLA also has suffered home losses this season against Hofstra and Cal State Fullerton.
“It will be a fun road trip for us. We’ve got to take it one game at a time,” CU point guard McKinley Wright IV said. “We’ve got UCLA and they’re a little up and down. So we can’t go in there looking at them lightly. They’re at home, home court advantage, we’ve got to go in there and execute the game plan. Defense and rebounding is going to travel with us. As long as we’ve got that, that’s all that really matters. We’re looking forward to it.”
While UCLA owns a talented roster, the Bruins have yet to establish a team template under Cronin. Through the first four weekends of league play, the Bruins rank ninth in conference games in defensive field goal percentage (.452) and 10th in defensive 3-point percentage (.361). The Bruins’ offense hasn’t been much better, ranking ninth in league games in 3-point percentage (.314) and 10th in turnovers per game (14.4).
“They are a team that is extremely talented. Individually, they’ve got some really good players,” Boyle said. “They’re obviously adjusting to a new coach. I think their new coach is adjusting to them and there’s some growing pains there. But UCLA is UCLA and we’ve got great respect for that program, obviously and what it represents.
“But again this team, this Colorado basketball team, the way we’re built and the way we compete, we have a chance to win every time we step on the floor. As a coach, that’s a good feeling. That’s a good place to start. What we’ve got to figure out is what is it going to take to get that done. And that might be different against UCLA than it is on Saturday when we play USC. Game planning and adjusting to personnel is going to be critical. Our team has proven that they can do that. But we’re going to have to continue to do that.”
No. 20 CU Buffs at UCLA Bruins
TIPOFF: Thursday, 9 p.m. MT, Pauley Pavilion, Los Angeles.
BROADCAST: TV — ESPN2; Radio — KOA 850 AM and 94.1 FM.
RECORDS: Colorado 16-4, 5-2 Pac-12 Conference; UCLA 10-10, 3-4.
COACHES: Colorado — Tad Boyle, 10th season (205-127, 261-193 overall); UCLA — Mick Cronin, 1st season (10-10, 375-181 overall).
KEY PLAYERS: Colorado — G McKinley Wright IV, Jr., 13.4 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 5.2 apg; F Tyler Bey, Jr., 13.3 ppg, 9.1 rpg; G/F D’Shawn Schwartz, Jr., 10.7 ppg, 3.6 rpg, .402 3-point percentage; F Evan Battey, R-So., 9.0 ppg, 6.6 rpg. UCLA — G Chris Smith, Jr., 12.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg; F Jalen Hill, R-So., 10.0 ppg, 7.3 rpg; G/F Jamie Jaquez, Fr., 8.5 ppg, 4.3 rpg.
WHAT TO WATCH: The Buffs need road wins to compete for the Pac-12’s regular season championship. The Buffs can survive an L.A. split, but a loss against the Bruins would make a split far more difficult. CU didn’t bring the energy in its last road game, a loss at Arizona, and needs to fix that to pounce on a beatable Bruins team.
NOTES: The Buffs have swept the season series from UCLA the past two years…CU senior guard Shane Gatling averaged 27 points in two games against UCLA last year…Wright needs two assists to surpass Mike Reid for second place on the Buffs’ career assist list…Bey posted double-doubles in both games against the Bruins last year, including scoring a career-high 27 points in a win at home. Bey needs eight rebounds to be the 13th CU player to collect 700 in his career…Bruins senior Prince Ali was a starter for much of the past two seasons and early this season but his role has been greatly diminished lately, with just 26 minutes and four points over the past four games…The road trip will feature three of the top four Pac-12 leaders in conference games in rebounding margin — No. 1 USC (plus-6.1), No. 3 CU (plus-4.6), and No. 4 UCLA (plus-3.3)…After struggling with turnovers through much of nonconference play, the Buffs’ rate of 12.1 turnovers in league games is the fourth-lowest in Pac-12 games…CU’s road trip finishes on Saturday at USC (8:30 p.m. MT, FS1).