Arizona and UCLA haven’t met as ranked teams in basketball in nearly six years.
The Wildcats went through the choppy waters of the transition from Lute Olson before emerging with Sean Miller at the helm, navigating Arizona into calmer seas as the Pac-12′s most stable program.
Coaching, tradition, facilities, recruiting, fan support … nobody has it better than Arizona right now.
Then there’s UCLA. While the Cats were mired in coaching issues, falling from the Top 25, the Bruins went to three consecutive Final Fours from 2006 to 2008. Since then, UCLA has missed the NCAA Tournament twice, jumping the track with a myriad of player defections and, as described by Sports Illustrated last season, combustible chemistry and rosters filled with knuckleheads.
The league’s bellwether programs have been up and down, failing to intersect as ranked teams since Feb. 17, 2007, when fifth-ranked UCLA won at 19th-ranked Arizona 81-66. That would be Olson’s last time coaching against the Bruins.
It was Olson, almost 30 years ago, who began to make this a rivalry, usually the must-see Pac-12 matchup of the season. The programs have combined to at least share 20 of the past 27 regular-season conference championships.
The rivalry was roaring the late 1980s, catching the eye of Miller, who was a point guard from Pittsburgh at the time.
“Everybody in this country respects the great teams, players, coaches,” Miller said. “When you would watch that game, whether it would be in McKale or Pauley Pavilion, you knew you were getting high quality basketball.”
Tonight’s meeting at McKale nearly matched ranked teams, but Oregon snapped UCLA’s 10-game winning streak Saturday, bouncing the Bruins out of the poll after being No. 24.
No matter what the polls say, the buzz is back. These teams were preseason co-favorites to win the Pac-12. Arizona is ranked sixth in the country. UCLA stumbled early as it awaited eligibility news on freshman Shabazz Muhammad and dealt with the transfers of guard Tyler Lamb and big man Joshua Smith.
The Bruins aren’t deep, but they have the kind of front-line talent that makes all things possible in March.
“I think in fairness to UCLA, they went through a lot of different things in November, not just Shabazz and the uncertainty of when he would be back,” Miller said.
“Like all of us, with freshmen, no matter how talented they are, it takes a while, especially on defense. They were very much a work in progress at the beginning of the year … and you could sense right around Christmas, they started to play better, hit their stride more. …
“It’s a big, big game, no question. I think our conference feels that way. It’s a big game nationally for us. Any home conference game is a great opportunity, and we certainly don’t want to blow that opportunity.
“We completely respect UCLA, recognize their talent, how well-coached they are. How much better they’ve gotten. The things they went through early they’re no longer going through.”
UCLA has three freshmen and a senior transfer point guard, Larry Drew II, in its rotation.
Arizona has three freshmen and a senior transfer point guard, Mark Lyons, in its rotation.
The infusion of new talent, combined with veteran hands such as Arizona’s Solomon Hill and UCLA’s Travis Wear, has re-elevated this rivalry. It’s not quite the old days, but it’s closer than what it’s been.
And it’s the kind of game — on ESPN2 in prime time with a Whiteout at McKale Center — that the Pac-12 needs.
“It’s a great rivalry,” UCLA’s Ben Howland said in his weekly news conference.
“You had Lute Olson there for so many years and did such a wonderful job. A Hall of Fame coach. He really built that program into a national power. UCLA has been a national power since the days of John Wooden. …
“When you have two really good programs playing each other, there’s going to be a rivalry.”