The road trip to Colorado and Utah may be the most important of Steve Alford’s UCLA coaching career. Why?
In three plus seasons, Steve Alford has never swept a road trip:
- UCLA’s team this year is very good. If it is to fulfill its potential, it needs to beat good, but not very good, Utah and Colorado teams.
- UCLA also has to play Arizona on the road. A tough game that, like the Oregon road game, would be an understandable loss. Meanwhile, Oregon and Arizona only play each other once at Oregon.
- The Pac-12 has three elite teams and a number of weak teams. Thus, even if UCLA beats Oregon and Arizona at home, one of those two will likely, barring upsets, be facing only a couple losses. Put another way: UCLA must win these games over Colorado and Utah to have a realistic shot to win the Pac-12 title.
- Only the Pac-12 Champion will get the top seed out west. UCLA needs to win the regular season championship.
That is not to say this will be easy. There are a number of factors that make this trip tough. First is the altitude. Obviously, there are two games at altitude. Worse, a relatively short break between the games. One is at 8 p.m. PT Thursday and the other is 43 hours later at 3 p.m. PT Saturday.
But here is the thing. UCLA has arguably the best player in the nation in Lonzo Ball. UCLA has one of the ten best in the country in TJ Leaf. UCLA’s other three starters are experienced upper class-man – Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton, and Thomas Welsh – who should be prepared for the road. This is a great mix of upperclassmen and superstar freshmen.
Moreover, for the first time during Alford’s tenure, he has two likely NBA draft picks coming off the bench. Ike Anigbogu even made the first round in one mock draft. Aaron Holiday is likely NBA pick as well. Both would seemingly further improve with time, but that is not the point. UCLA has a bench that features two players that would start for most Pac-12 teams. We have depth.
Lastly, Gyorgy Goloman is a pass-first team player that is 6’11”. Not bad for an eighth man.
Most importantly, this team beat a very good Kentucky team at Rupp at 9 a.m. PT in front of 23,000 screaming fans. This team should sweep the mountain road trip.
It is not fatal to the season, obviously, if they don’t win both. However, it may be fatal for a protected Western seed in the NCAA tournament. Remember, if they win that seed, UCLA could win the NCAA tournament without ever leaving the Pacific time zone because this year’s title game is in Phoenix (and Arizona doesn’t observe Daylight Savings Time, effectively moving the state from the Mountain time zone to the Pacific from March until November).
In any case, UCLA can and should win both games this year. UCLA needs to do more than just make the Tournament to meet expectations. They have the talent. This week is not just another potential milestone for Alford’s UCLA career. It is a chance to prove this UCLA team is going to make a serious run for the Pac-12 title and more.