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No. 21 UCLA may be shorthanded vs. Central Arkansas

LOS ANGELES -- No. 21 UCLA returns from China with its first win of the 2017-18 season, but also down three players.

The Bruins (1-0) lost freshmen LiAngelo Ball, Jalen Hill and Cody Riley two days prior to their 63-60 win over Georgia Tech Friday in Shanghai, the result of a shoplifting incident that left the trio on a form of house arrest in a hotel for a week.

The unusual circumstances of UCLA's foreign excursion went so far as to involve the White House, as first reported by the Washington Post.

The three freshmen returned to the United States Tuesday night, but it remains unclear whether they will play against Central Arkansas in the Bruins' home opener on Wednesday. They could be subject to discipline by the university or by the team.

The Bears (1-1) visit Pauley Pavilion in another unusual homecoming of sorts.

Though the two programs have never faced each other on the court, Central Arkansas head coach Russ Pennell has been on the opposing sideline once at Pauley Pavilion before, as interim head coach of the Arizona Wildcats in 2008-09.

UCLA won that matchup, 83-60.

Pennell is in his fourth season as head coach at Central Arkansas, where he played alongside NBA Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen in 1983-84.

The Bears have seen incremental improvement over Pennell's first three seasons, from 2-27 in 2014-15, to 7-21 in 2015-16, and 8-24 a season ago. They opened 2017-18 with a 107-66 loss at Baylor on Nov. 10, then rebounded in a 99-51 win over University of the Ozarks on Nov. 12.

"If we can keep building on that, this team has a chance of being really good," Pennell said in his postgame press conference following Central Arkansas' win. "Especially now that we have a guy who can protect the rim like Hayden Koval."

Koval, a 7-foot freshman, has five blocked shots on the season. He has also demonstrated a willingness to step outside on offense, having attempted five 3-pointers in the Bears' first two games.

UCLA has its own 7-footer, Thomas Welsh, the team's leading rebounder a season ago and one of the Bruins' most consistent outside shooters.

UCLA head coach Steve Alford called Welsh "one of the best bigs in the country," at last month's Pac-12 media day event. Welsh validated his coach's praise in the season opener, scoring 10 points on 5-of-8 shooting with a team-high eight rebounds, but freshman wing Kris Wilkes was UCLA's star in the narrow win defeat of Georgia Tech.

Wilkes scored a team-high 18 points and made 4 of 6 from behind the 3-point line, helping pick up the slack for veteran backcourt mate Aaron Holiday. Holiday went 0 of 4 from deep against Georgia Tech.

Holiday should draw a difficult defensive assignment in Wednesday's contest, facing Central Arkansas senior guard Jordan Howard. Howard averaged 15.7, 20.2 and 19.5 points per game in his first three seasons, and has 46 points through Central Arkansas' first two games.

Wednesday might be an opportunity for Alford to mix up defensive looks and go deep into his bench -- but the possible absence of the three freshmen could limit his rotation.

"If we stay healthy, we're looking at 10, 11 guys, and I've not had that depth at UCLA," Alford said prior to the season. "If we can do that, I think we can maybe extend what we're doing defensively, not just offensively."

Instead, UCLA is coming off an opener in which it played just eight.

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