Arizona-UCLA rivalry still burning hot as Pac-12 clubs set to face off

UCLA celebrates winning the Pac-12 tourney last season, beating Arizona 75-71 in Las Vegas.

Kyle Terada/Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

TUCSON, Ariz. — The changing of the guard in the Pac-10 Conference started March 3, 1986.

Three years into the Lute Olson era, Arizona slew the giant that was UCLA. Shortly after UA’s 88-76 win, Olson’s wife, Bobbi, sauntered up to former UCLA coach John Wooden to ask for his autograph on that game day’s program. Arizona had won its first Pac-10 title.

The Wildcats have gone on to win 11 more titles in the conference since that day in Pauley Pavilion, and the Arizona-UCLA matchups have gone from a budding rivalry to the best in the West.

ESPN thought so much of Saturday’s meeting in McKale Center that the GameDay crew will be in town to trumpet the matchup, even if the Bruins have fallen to fourth in the Pac-12 race and, at 16-11 overall, are in desperate need of making a good impression on the NCAA tournament selection committee. UCLA’s loss at Arizona State on Wednesday didn’t help matters.

At various times over the past three decades, Stanford, Washington and Oregon have edged into Arizona’s rivalry conversation, but the games against UCLA always seemed to be must-see events, whether it was Olson vs. Larry Farmer or Walt Hazzard or Jim Harrick or Steve Lavin or Ben Howland.

"It was always a big game," Olson said on Friday, "even when they weren’t very good."

What wasn’t to like about Sean Elliott vs. Reggie Miller? Damon Stoudamire vs. Ed O’Bannon for conference Player of the Year? Salim Stoudamire vs. Arron Afflalo? And on and on …

Now, it’s Steve Alford vs. Sean Miller.

The coaches are 1-1 against each another since Alford left New Mexico for Westwood before last season. Miller is 6-6 vs. UCLA since moving west to Tucson more than five years ago.

New unis for Saturday

Because of the history and the stature of the programs, it’s often been said that if Arizona and UCLA are good, it helps elevate the credibility of the entire conference.

"I think that’s always been the theory," Alford said.

"When I was in the Big Ten as a player (at Indiana) and as a coach (at Iowa), your so-called premier programs have had a long history of success and when they do well it tends to bring the rest of the league up. I haven’t been in the Pac-12 long enough to get a read or feel about that. Last year we had a lot of success as a league, and Arizona and UCLA were one and two."

No matter how it shakes out, this rivalry is always big, according to former Arizona player Corey Williams.

"UCLA’s tradition is deeper than Arizona’s, but both programs have been on top for the last 30 years," said Williams, a college basketball analyst for ESPN and the Pac-12 Networks. "It’s not a West Coast rivalry but it’s also a national one. There is a reason this game is always on national TV. They compete head-to-head for recruits and each is the only school the other looks to as a benchmark."

He then added: "It’s the Clash of the Titans, bragging rights. We hate those guys."

UCLA feels the same way. Arizona and Southern California were the Bruins’ most-hated opponents, said Tracy Murray, now the game analyst for UCLA radio.

"It was always a heated game and heated battle," he said of the games. "It was a war. We’d stare at each other pregame and go to war during the game and beat each other up. And then after, laugh about it. Then the next game go right back at it.

"I’m sure it was a game they circled on their schedule and we circled on ours. Home and away. We looked forward to playing Arizona. Most were California guys. I had best friends on the Arizona team.

More Wildcats

"And we treated it as a war."

It should be that way all the time, Murray said. He added that the luster isn’t the same because of the unbalanced league schedule — with UA playing UCLA just once in the regular season in each of the past two years. He said he’s glad the matchup returns to a home-and-home series next year.

"It doesn’t seem right, right now," he said. "It’s not right to play Arizona just once."

Arizona won the regular-season meeting last year 79-75, but lost 75-71 in the championship game of the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas.

"We had two great games with Arizona last year, one where they beat us in our building in a very close game," Alford said. "And then we beat them in the Pac-12 Tournament in what I thought was as good of a college basketball game all year."

Emotions are usually high in every meeting which, especially in that Arizona has some players from Southern California (Stanley Johnson, Gabe York, Parker Jackson-Cartwright) and has recruited some of UCLA’s players (Isaac Hamilton, Thomas Welsh).

"It’s a very good rival and it’s only building," Alford said. "We obviously hope we can continue to win (like) the first year, whether it be from the recruiting process or the development of our young players."

The good thing, Williams said, is that the rivalry will continue through a new chapter.

"It’s great to see two young coaches in Sean Miller and Steve Alford continuing the tradition," he said. "Both programs are very lucky."

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