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January 15, 2014

UCLA set to hit the road for Pac-12 play

Carrying a 2-1 conference record after its first Pac-12 home stretch, UCLA hits the road for its first conference games away from the comfort of Westwood.

It'll be the inaugural Pac-12 road trip for head coach Steve Alford and his freshmen players, including Zach LaVine and Alford's son, Bryce.

"We haven't had a lot of experience with this team on the road, so they've got to learn quickly," Alford said. "You're in that part of the season where it's important to start getting some road wins."

Although youth dominates UCLA's roster - and nearly every other major college basketball program's roster, for that matter - its two principal freshmen, LaVine and Alford, have been consistent for the Bruins all season.

Alford lauded the consistency of his talented freshman duo, but underscored their inexperience as freshmen.

"Freshmen don't change, regardless of what media label them; they're still freshmen," he said. "Freshmen just don't have the experience. We're going to Boulder and we're going to Salt Lake City. The freshmen on our team … have never done that. They've never been on these road trips."

Lack of experience can bring nerves for some players, but it also yields the excitement of new ground.

"Obviously, it's the first (road) trip for Zach and me and the rest of the freshmen, so that's going to be fun," Bryce Alford said. "It's going to be interesting to see how it goes. We're excited to get away and try to get some road wins."

The Pac-12 road circuit may be uncharted territory for both Alfords, but Steve Alford has plenty of previous road experience to bank on from his years of coaching at Iowa in the Big Ten and at New Mexico in the Mountain West.

During his six seasons at New Mexico, Alford's Lobos compiled a 47-30 record on the road. The key to successful road trips, he says, is maintaining consistency.

"We kept things very consistent on the road," Alford said. "We don't change things up - from pregame meals, to what we do with films, to what we do with walkthroughs, to how we practice. We try to keep that as consistent as possible."

There will be no grace period for Steve Alford and his Bruins to plant their stake on the road. On the frontend of its two-game road trip, UCLA will play No. 21 Colorado, which has defeated Top 25 talent Kansas and Oregon.

Nonetheless, the Colorado team that UCLA plays on Thursday won't be the same team that achieved key wins against those teams.
The Buffaloes will be missing their top scorer and arguably best player in junior point guard Spencer Dinwiddie, who sustained a season-ending knee injury in the first half of Colorado's first conference loss to Washington.

He put up a team-high 23 points against UCLA last season.

"It won't change our approach," Steve Alford said of Dinwiddie's absence. "There will be somebody that they're going to implement that has been waiting and waiting for their chance. So, that's always a scary deal because you don't have as much information on those individuals."

Colorado will also be without freshman guard / forwad Tre'Shaun Fletcher, who also injured his knee in the same game. He isn't one of the team's principal players (10.2 minutes per game, 3.2 points per game), but his injury is yet another blow to the Buffaloes in the beginning stages of conference play.

Still, because of its geographical location, Colorado has a potential advantage over UCLA: elevation. Boulder is situated at 5,200 feet, nearly a 5,000-foot contrast from Westwood. Salt Lake City, home to the University of Utah, is at 4,300 feet.

Bryce Alford may have yet to face Colorado and Utah on their home floors, but he's accustomed to playing at a high altitude. The 6-foot-3 guard, who is averaging 8.4 points per game, played high school ball in Albuquerque (5,100 feet) and went to Colorado Springs (6,000 feet) over the summer for Team USA tryouts.

"You just have to play hard and just be tough and get through it," he said. "Obviously, the altitude affects you a little bit, but these are tough guys. I don't think it will affect us too much."

How the altitude and the absence of Dinwiddie affect UCLA will be determined when the Bruins and Buffaloes tip off in Boulder on Thursday.


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