The Pac-12 Conference’s newest members have added more than altitude and a time change.
Colorado and Utah are also two of the conference’s pluckier basketball programs, routinely inflicting a Rocky Mountain low on some of their more storied counterparts.
The Buffaloes defeated Arizona to win the first Pac-12 tournament they played in, in 2012, and have made the NCAA tournament in four of their five seasons as conference members. The Utes finished in second place in the Pac-12 in each of the last two seasons and made the NCAA tournament both times, advancing to a regional semifinal in 2015.
Neither team needed a five-year plan to announce its arrival.
“I definitely think adding those two teams has been a bonus to this conference,” said UCLA shooting guard Bryce Alford, who may feel differently after the fourth-ranked Bruins (16-1 overall, 3-1 in Pac-12 play) start a trip to face both teams Thursday night against Colorado at Coors Events Center.
The Buffaloes own two of the Pac-12’s four victories over ranked out-of-conference teams this season, having defeated then-No. 22 Texas and then-No. 13 Xavier. Colorado (10-6, 0-3) isn’t ranked because it dropped nonconference games against Notre Dame and Brigham Young before opening conference play with three consecutive losses, including a 76-60 setback against Utah.
Part of Colorado’s winless start in conference play can be attributed to opening with three consecutive road games for the first time in 85 years, going back to the days when Colorado was known as the Silver and Gold and played in the Rocky Mountain Conference.
UCLA players know they’re likely to face a team whose urgency could exceed their own in Colorado’s home conference opener. The Bruins were in a similar spot last season after dropping their first two Pac-12 games on the road.
“I know that feeling of, ‘Hey, we’ve got to get this one,’ ” Alford said.
UCLA has dominated Colorado since the Buffaloes joined the Pac-12, winning six of seven games. The Bruins have had less success against Utah, going 4-3.
What makes Colorado unique is its experience. The Buffaloes start four seniors and a redshirt junior, giving them savvy few teams can match. Seniors Derrick White (15.8 points per game) and Xavier Johnson (14.7) are among the Pac-12’s scoring leaders.
“They’ve been through this,” UCLA Coach Steve Alford said. “They’ve come off a road [trip] where they haven’t been successful and had to win a road game; they’ve already done that, they’ve experienced that. We’ve still got guys going through this for the first time.”
Of course, Bruins freshmen Lonzo Ball, TJ Leaf and Ike Anigbogu have met almost every challenge. They’ve won on the road against then-No. 1 Kentucky and nearly ended Oregon’s homecourt winning streak before falling on a last-second three-pointer. Ball and Leaf were among 25 players on the midseason list for the John R. Wooden Award released Wednesday.
“I’ve been very surprised, very encouraged with the way they’ve done it,” Bryce Alford said of his younger teammates. “They’ve played their fair share of guys who have been talented freshmen or guys who have had experience and they’ve done what they do; they’re gamers and they go out and compete. To those guys, it doesn’t matter who they’re going against. They’re just going to play their best.”
Ball did not seem to believe he was at a disadvantage by playing in far fewer games than many of his competitors.
“I’d say they know the game,” Ball said of players with lots of experience, “but everybody on the court pretty much knows how to play, so I look at everybody the same.”
NEXT UP FOR UCLA
When: Thursday, 8 p.m. PST.
Where: Coors Events Center.
On the air: TV: FS1; Radio: 570.
Update: This is the start of a stretch of playing five of seven games on the road for UCLA, which will need to win with regularity away from Pauley Pavilion to start entertaining thoughts of a No. 1 or No. 2 seeding in the NCAA tournament. Colorado is 7-0 this season when at least four players score in double figures. One of the Buffaloes’ biggest problems has been putting the ball in the basket; they’re shooting 43.7%, the second-worst mark in the Pac-12 Conference. But UCLA would be smart not to foul Colorado senior Josh Fortune late in a close game because he’s making 90% of his free throws, the best accuracy in the conference.