- Peter Yoon, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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For the UCLA men's basketball team, the Los Angeles Sports Arena is now officially a home away from home.
The Bruins open their season there Friday night against Loyola Marymount in the first of 14 home games to be played at the downtown Los Angeles arena that the Bruins will use for a majority of their home games while Pauley Pavilion undergoes a $136-million renovation.
UCLA will also play four home games at the Honda Center in Anaheim, creating a nomadic existence for the Bruins that they will have to overcome in order to play up to the potential of their top-20 preseason ranking.
"It’s going to be more of a challenge," coach Ben Howland said. "We’ve got to have fun with this. We’re on the road show. Hopefully we’ll be come tougher mentally because we’re on the road essentially as opposed to being on campus and that’s going to make us tougher."
The obvious drawback is not playing on campus, but the Sports Arena, located adjacent to USC, is helping to soften that blow. UCLA has worked with arena officials to give USC's former home venue more of a UCLA feel. They've added blue uplighting on the outside and painted the inside Bruin Blue.
UCLA's championship banners are hanging from the rafters and interior signage is in the UCLA color scheme. The floor used for play will has the same logos as the one in Pauley and a new scoreboard is adorned with the UCLA signature.
In all, the school has spent about $200,000 to make the Bruins and their fans feel at home.
"You will be pleasantly surprised at what you see," said Ken Weiner, UCLA's senior associate athletic director for business relations. "It is now a Bruin facility. We’re doing everything we can to make this our home."
The question is: Will it feel like home for the Bruins? UCLA played a scrimmage there two weeks ago, and it wasn't received very well by the players. But the transformation of the building wasn't complete at the time. Now the locker room is painted in UCLA blue, there is new furniture in there and also a flat screen television.
"I think the Sports Arena is going to be fine," Howland said. "I think they’ve really gone out of their way to make it our home arena during the season."
But will the fans follow? Students, normally able to walk from their dorms to Pauley Pavilion, now must fight L.A. traffic to get to games. The school is providing free buses for students and is also offering free bus rides from Jackie Robinson Stadium for fans who don't want to fight traffic.
Still, the season begins with a strange feel and it might take some time for the team to settle in and feel at home.
"I would assume it will probably take a few games," forward Reeves Nelson said. "But we’ve known since last season ended that we were going to have to do that so we’re just going to have to make that adjustment and hopefully get used to it as fast as possible."
Because the Bruins are playing all their games away from campus, they are calling this season "The Bruin Road Show." The players are taking on a mentality that every game is a road game and that they will have to be mentally tougher this season than in any other season.
"We just have to approach every game like a road game, which we kind of thrive on," point guard Lazeric Jones said. "We're all going to be going through this together so it's going to help develop our camaraderie and make us stronger."
Playing off campus brings some logistical issues, especially for weeknight games when players are in class. They will hold an afternoon shoot-around on campus followed by a team meal, then board a bus for the game. For weekend games, the team will stay in a hotel, which is something they did even when games were at Pauley.
The hassle will all be worth it next year, when the Bruins move back into an upgraded Pauley Pavilion, Howland said.
"It’s going to be spectacular," Howland said. "This is the sacrifice you have to make to get into a brand new facility on campus, state of the art, one of the nicest facilities in the country. It’s totally worth the inconvenience that we’re going through this year of having to be off campus."
13hChantel Jennings and Kevin Gemmell