UCLA sophomore center Joshua Smith didn’t feel welcome the first time he laid eyes on the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, the Bruins’ temporary home this season while Pauley Pavilion is renovated.
A week prior to UCLA’s season opener, a game it would lose to Loyola Marymount that many consider to be the beginning of the end for this year’s underachieving team, the Bruins made the 15-mile trek to the Sports Arena.
Smith saw a number of things he didn’t like, comparing it to “the set for a “˜Hoosiers’ movie or something like in the 1980s” and complaining about dust and dirt coming off the chairs in the locker room.
What Smith really took issue with most had nothing to do with the antiquated interior of the Sports Arena.
He complained of a USC banner that hung on the side of the arena facing the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum where the Trojans play their football games.
“I knew it was close, but I didn’t know it was that close to their campus,” Smith said in November.
“We were pulling up and I was like, the Coliseum is right there, where are we going? And then it’s like the Los Angeles Sports Arena right there. I’m like, “˜OK, this is a nice location.’”
Smith has since softened his stance on the cavernous, 53-year-old venue as historic Pauley Pavilion nears reopening.
“The Sports Arena has been OK, but it’s on to bigger and better things,” he said.
Before the Bruins (14-11, 7-6 Pac-12) move back to campus, they have three games remaining downtown, the first of which comes tonight against a dismal USC team (6-20, 1-12).
The Trojans have lost almost as many players to season-ending injuries (five) as it has active scholarship players on its roster (six).
Although the Sports Arena now boasts a “Welcome UCLA basketball” banner in place of the USC one, the actual “home team” is in question.
The Trojans could easily walk the 1.2-mile stretch of Figueroa Street between their campus and the Sports Arena while the Bruins will be bussed in after classes as they have all year.
Trojan fans are no strangers to the venue either as USC played its home games there for almost 50 years until the 2007 season when the Galen Center was opened.
“I do want to see if we’re going to have more fans than them,” senior guard Lazeric Jones said of the peculiar situation.
Sophomore guard Tyler Lamb was less interested.
“I’m not concerned at all,” he said. “We’re not playing to see how many fans go to the game, we’re playing to win. We love when our fans come to the game and support us, but if they can’t make it to the game, that’s fine too.”
In the first meeting this season between the rivals, UCLA prevailed easily in a 66-47 win at the Galen Center that left little question as to who ruled Los Angeles’ college basketball scene, but that was when the Trojans still had seven-footer Dewayne Dedmon.
A loss to the Trojans in their current state would surely be damaging for coach Ben Howland’s team in an already mediocre season.
The Bruins’ season goals have shifted from winning the conference and securing an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament to finishing in the Pac-12′s top four in order to secure a first-round bye in the conference tournament, their only chance at making the big dance.
The ninth-year coach, true to form, isn’t taking the Trojans lightly.
“Bottom line is if USC beats us tomorrow, that will really be a feather in their cap with everything they’ve gone through,” he said.
“We have to go out and play really hard. Just like the first time we played them, it’s like you throw out all the records.”