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Bruins win, but Pauley is missing something

There's not much buzz for UCLA basketball

No man is an island, but two women sitting in the upper half of end-zone Section 121 at Pauley Pavilion on Saturday afternoon did a pretty good imitation.

When the game between UCLA and Oregon began, amid the 234 seats that surrounded them, law students Amanda Laber and Tina Johnsen were the only fans.

They were two lone dots in a sea of blue, fighting to keep their interest afloat as Bruins basketball crashed around them.

"At first, it almost didn't feel like a real game," Laber said.

But soon, they learned to embrace the solitude, celebrate the isolation, revel in the escape to another world, to the Arena That Fans Forgot.

"It was actually like our own private basketball game," Laber said.

"It felt like we had the whole place to ourselves!" Johnsen said.

Eventually folks moved down from the upper levels into those surrounding seats, and by the time UCLA had defeated Oregon, 72-63, the attendance was one of the season's highest numbers — 10,006 — and the place was pretty loud.

But the initial sight lingered. The perception is reality. In its third season, like a highly touted young slugger who can't hit the curveball, renovated Pauley Pavilion is scuffling.

"We're not overly enthusiastic about the attendance we're seeing," acknowledged Dan Guerrero, UCLA's athletic director. "We need to continue to work to get people to come enjoy our team."

The crowds have been indeed small, with an average of barely 7,000 fans in an arena nearly twice that size. The noise level is generally low, except when fans are cheering for an opponent to miss consecutive free throws in the second half, thus earning them the coveted free yogurt.

Pauley Pavilion is missing students. It's missing buzz. It's missing everything that could be found in old Pauley except that wonderful young woman sitting behind the Bruins bench.

"I'll always love this place," said Nan Wooden, Coach's daughter.

What's not to love? It's a wonderful venue. The $136-million renovation turned a cramped and aging gym into a sparkling arena with open concourses and great sight lines and vastly improved concessions.

The product on the floor, at least for home games against mostly easy opponents under Steve Alford, has been equally impressive, with the Bruins winning 29 of their last 32 games at Pauley. Even the actual price of a single-game ticket isn't awful, a cheap seat selling for as little as $28, often cheaper with promotions.

On the surface, everything is in place for the sort of college basketball craziness that one sees nightly on television in places like Gainesville, Fla, and Charlottesville, Va.

But then the gates open, and UCLA basketball appears to be in a different world, one where the bouncing of basketballs echoes off empty seats, one where time seems to have forgotten those 11 national championships, when even the 20th anniversary celebration of the Bruins' last NCAA title couldn't fill the house. When the players were introduced at halftime Saturday, they were greeted with a standing ovation from fans seemingly occupying only every other seat, as lots of folks had already bolted for the concession stands.

"There a difference between this place and old Pauley, it's weird," said Ed O'Bannon, the returning star of the 1995 team. "Maybe it just doesn't feel right to everybody yet. I don't get it."

Old Pauley roared under everyone from Wooden to Jim Harrick to even Steve Lavin, whose victory over Duke in 1997 was one of the most raucous times in the building's history. The noise remained steady during Ben Howland's three consecutive Final Four seasons, but the place began growing quiet during Howland's final years, and part of the reason he couldn't keep his job is that he couldn't recharge the fan base during renovated Pauley's first season.

There are some who say the huge donations required of longtime season-ticket holders drove folks away from new Pauley, but Guerrero says those seats have long since seen sold.

Most seem to agree the biggest problem is the starting times, which were sold out to television by Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott in a $3-billion deal. The contract makes big bucks for the schools but shortchanges the fans. The Bruins games have been scheduled at all sorts of odd times and odd days, often requiring fans to either drive through the teeth of Los Angeles' toughest traffic or hang out until midnight on a work night.

This season there was a 6 p.m. game on a Thursday night. Are you kidding me? There was also 9 p.m. game on a Wednesday night. Really? Of course, fans can always stay home and watch the Pac-12 Network and … uh, maybe not.

"A real concern is the start times, and there's nothing we can do about that. We made the deal, we have to pay the price," Guerrero said. "Thursday at 6 p.m. is just not a start time that works in Los Angeles."

The second issue is, this being a school with about 42,000 students, where are all the students? In hopes of increasing the noise and involvement in renovated Pauley, officials increased the size of the student sections and moved them lower. While the students who show up are loud, there just aren't very many of them: Witness that entire nearly empty section before Saturday's game.

"We moved the students down, we gave them several sections, yet there is as such a swing in terms of their presence," Guerrero said.

In college basketball more than any other sport, students matter. Students create the sort of scenes that sell recruits. Students make the sort of noise that upsets opponents. Pauley Pavilion just doesn't have those sorts of students, and while the effect can't be seen in UCLA's home record, it certainly could contribute to the slow erosion of the brand. For top recruits watching a games played in Louisville or Westwood, there is no comparison.

"We understand it's an effort to get to our games, but it's a very important effort for us, and we just hope the word gets out and people want to make that effort," Coach Steve Alford said.

Saturday's victory filled Pauley Pavilion with the sounds of an arena-wide eight-clap, fans spelling out U-C-L-A with their hands, several thousand folks smiling and celebrating.

It was fun. It was even a tad noisy. It was all too rare.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Twitter: @billplaschke

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