UCLA men's basketball team, whose biggest challenges have come off the court, faces its 'toughest' test yet

Strong winds buffeted the plane carrying the UCLA basketball team shortly after takeoff from Los Angeles International Airport on Thursday, providing a white-knuckle start to its latest trip.

A rocky reminder of life on the road was not necessary.

The Bruins lost one game and three players over an international shoplifting incident during this travel-heavy portion of their schedule. By the time every touch-down and takeoff is complete, UCLA will have logged 18,180 air miles in roundtrips between L.A. and Shanghai, Kansas City, Mo., and Detroit.

Players arrived in Michigan to face the Wolverines on Saturday at the Crisler Center as focused on biorhythms and biology as basketball. UCLA has commenced final exams and coaches are closely monitoring the fatigue levels associated with spending 39 hours in the air over the season’s first five weeks.

“It’s been very difficult, but I like what the guys are doing,” coach Steve Alford said Friday of the Bruins’ schedule. “They’ve handled the challenge very well and I just want them to continue to grow.”

UCLA (7-1) has won four consecutive games heading into its nationally televised (9 a.m. PST, CBS) matchup against Michigan (7-3) on a court where the Wolverines have gone 5-0 this season.

“This team is very, very good and they’re playing at home,” Alford said of the Wolverines. “It’s our toughest game to date.”

The road has been rough on the Bruins. During the team’s season-opening trip to China, freshmen LiAngelo Ball, Jalen Hill and Cody Riley were caught shoplifting. Hill and Riley remain on indefinite suspension, and Ball left the program this week. Then there was a loss to Creighton in Kansas City last month.

There have been challenges at home, too. A game against Montana scheduled for Wednesday at Pauley Pavilion was canceled because of nearby wildfires. Alford said Friday there was mutual interest in rescheduling the game for later this season.

Playing the Grizzlies was supposed to conclude what Alford had touted as a “growth week” for his young team. The Bruins’ evolution involved pairing some offensive cohesion with strong defense Sunday during a 106-73 victory over Detroit Mercy that Alford described as his team’s most complete game of the season.

The wildfires forced the cancellation of practice Wednesday in addition to the game because of concerns about air quality. Alford said the Bruins met that day to begin their preparations for Michigan and practiced Thursday at the Mo Ostin Center before departing for Ann Arbor.

Michigan is coming off a 71-62 loss at Ohio State on Monday in which the Wolverines could not hold a 20-point lead. Michigan shot 17.2% in the second half and was outscored, 41-19.

Saturday’s game marks the start of what could be the toughest four-game stretch of UCLA’s season. The Bruins return home to face No. 17 Cincinnati on Dec. 16 at Pauley Pavilion before playing South Dakota State on Dec. 19 in another home game. Then they will play No. 8 Kentucky on Dec. 23 in New Orleans as part of the CBS Sports Classic.

UCLA TODAY

AT MICHIGAN

When: 9 a.m. PST

Where: Crisler Center, Ann Arbor, Mich.

On the air: TV: Channel 2; Radio: 1150.

Update: Forward Moritz Wagner averages a team-leading 15.4 points and 8.5 rebounds per game for the Wolverines (7-3), who are undefeated on their home court but have lost two of their last three games. Michigan coach John Beilein questioned his team’s toughness after it lost a 20-point lead on the road against Ohio State on Monday, referencing the Wolverines’ football coach. “What does Jim Harbaugh say?” Beilein asked reporters. “ ‘Get some steel in our spine’ when things are tough. And not necessarily look to the coach for the answer.” UCLA (7-1) leads the series with the Wolverines, 12-5, including a 102-84 victory last season at Pauley Pavilion.

ben.bolch@latimes.com

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