Tension high as Arizona, UCLA renew rivalry

TUCSON, Ariz. — When UCLA and Arizona take to Lute and Bobbi Olson court on Thursday night, it will be the latest edition of an historic rivalry between the two Pac-12 powerhouses.

It’s the rivalry that Lute built in the early 1980s and UCLA’s Ben Howland has continued into the 2000s, and the conference has long been measured on the quality play of each. History has shown that if both teams are strong in the conference, college basketball followers tend to take notice. Sixth-ranked Arizona goes in 16-1 overall and 4-1 in the conference; UCLA is 15-4 and 4-1.

“It’s our chance to show everybody the quality of our conference,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “Hopefully our performance can back that up … “It is a big game, no question.’’

Miller, who has gone 4-3 against the Bruins since arriving in Tucson, said the rivalry is full of “history and tradition.”

“Big game’’ was mentioned at least four times at Arizona’s weekly media gathering on Tuesday.

It’s a rivalry that has typically brought out the most vocal crowds of the year at McKale Center — crowds that have love to chant, bait and serenade the Bruins at the top of their lungs.

The Bruins haven’t won in Tucson since 2008.

The crowd will be prepared Thursday, dressed in ceremonial all-white for the occasion. A sellout is expected.

“Our crowd will be a major factor in our team being ready,” Miller said. “I have no doubt it’ll be one of the great environments of the college basketball season.”

With UCLA losing at home to Oregon on Saturday, the Pac-12 lead is not at stake in this game. The Bruins (15-4, 5-1 Pac-12) fell out of the Top 25 as a result, but they remain ahead of the Wildcats (16-1, 4-1) in the conference standings, and Thursday’s winner emerges as the most likely challenger to the Ducks for the conference title. So the stakes remain high, and that doesn’t even factor in the historical significance.

“Everybody in this country respects the great teams, players and coaches,” Miller said, looking back at UCLA. “Whether you watched that (meeting) at McKale or Pauley Pavilion, you were getting high-quality basketball teams and programs that have high goals.”

Nothing has changed in that regard — except the names on the jerseys.

For the Bruins, those names include three high-impact freshmen who will be making their first McKale Center appearance: Shabazz Muhammad, Kyle Anderson an Jordan Adams. Brothers David and Travis Wear are veterans in the front court, and Larry Drew is one of the West’s best point guards, leading the nation in assists-to-turnover ratio (4.67).

“They’re pushing the ball more this year than they have in my previous three years here at Arizona,” Miller said. “Whether it’s the Wears, whether it’s Jordan Adams, Shabazz or Kyle Anderson, they have a variety of options, and the faster the ball is put in transition to me, the better they are. That’s my biggest concern, that and their offensive firepower in general.’’

Where the Bruins might be lacking against the Wildcats is depth. Depth-challenged Arizona State ran out of gas against Arizona on Saturday in the second half in Tempe — and the shortcoming was magnified when Jahii Carson got in foul trouble.

Arizona came up with a stellar defensive effort against ASU. In particular, Miller singled out freshman Brandon Ashley for his play against senior Carrick Felix. Then again, the Bruins are no Sun Devils.

“With freshmen, sometimes it takes awhile, especially on defense,” Miller said. “When you watch (the Bruins), they were very much a work in progress at the beginning of the year. They progressed into December, and you could sense around Christmas that they started to play better and hit their stride more. After Christmas, especially on their trip to Utah and Colorado, they really put it together.”

Then came last weekend’s setback — at home no less — which halted a 10-game win streak.

“Although they had a tough loss with Oregon, I think it’s pretty well-documented that’s a pretty good team right now,” Miller said.