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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


UCLA back at the top is the best thing to happen for Arizona, Pac-12

Courtesy Aubrey Yeo

UCLA Lonzo Ball drives the ball down the court on Nov. 1, 2016. The Bruins are the No. 3 ranked team in the country and face Arizona on Saturday at 2 p.m. MST.

UCLA is quite possibly the best team in the country, and that is a good thing for Arizona Wildcat fans. Make no mistake about it, when the Bruins are at the top of the conference people take notice, and that can only bring more national exposure when the two goliaths meet in Pauley-Pavilion Saturday.

It is UCLA and Arizona, then everyone else. That is the Pac-12 basketball hierarchy, and it has been for the past four decades. 

Beginning with the 1985-86 seasons, both UCLA and Arizona accounted for 24 of the 31 regular season or tournament championships in the Pac-12. This isn’t including the previous decade when the Bruins won every conference title in the 70s. Every. Single. One.

However, the Bruins’ dominance, while impressive, lacked a viable adversary. Enter Lute Olson. Olson’s ability to build Arizona into a national power and provide resistance to the force that was UCLA was key in making the Pac-10 one of the elite conferences in the country. 

RELATED: Wildcats head to L.A. with plenty on the line

One needn’t look any further than Kentucky lately to see how important it is to have someone in your conference that keeps you honest. Kentucky hasn’t had much consistent opposition within the SEC and is seemingly the favorite every year; well that’s no fun. 

Arizona’s rivalry with UCLA was ignited not only because of UCLA’s recent play and the importance of the upcoming matchup, but because of the brief history between the two head coaches, UCLA’s Steve Alford and Arizona’s Sean Miller.

Miller came into the picture after one of the more iconic moments in rivalry history happened in March of 2013 during the Pac-12 tournament. Mark Lyons, then Arizona point guard, penetrated the lane and went up for a shot, but UCLA’s Jordan Adams knocked the ball from his grasp. Lyons was able to gather the ball and came back down with it. 

The referees called Lyons for a travel and Miller shouted at the refs that Adams had touched the ball, so much so that he incurred a technical foul with the Wildcats up by only two. The momentum swung at that point and UCLA went on to win the game. Miller made it known after the game his disgust with the refs and how they handled the situation. 

However, it wasn’t over. The ensuing visits from Arizona to UCLA were met with chants from the student section of “He touched the ball,” a chant directed at Miller. 

Sure, ASU is the in-state rival for the UA in all sports, but they don’t hold a candle to the heated exchanges UCLA and Arizona have been involved in on the court. Even former UCLA star and current Pac-12 analyst Don Maclean will recall on air his battles with the Wildcats and how those were the toughest games he played, especially in McKale Center.

Throw into the mix all the great players between the two programs, success in the NCAA tournament and legacies that have been made from this game and you understand this is not an average run of the mill encounter. It is the definition of why college basketball is great. 

Only a few rivalries nationwide draw as much attention as this one, in part because other rivalry matchups include both teams being ranked and highly regarded. It is a perfect mix of history being modernized to live up to the hype of a great game.

Since that 1985 season, the Wildcats hold the advantage over UCLA 38-32. However, just a season ago both teams split in a couple of exciting games. Bryce Alford hit a game-winning shot at Pauley,  and the Wildcats won a 6-point thriller in McKale Center. 

This year should be no different, especially because of the styles of both teams. UCLA comes in with the No. 1 offense in the country, according to KenPom, thanks to their run-and-gun style led by freshman point guard Lonzo Ball. Arizona comes in ranked No. 16 overall in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom, and No. 12 in scoring defense, according to NCAA stats. It is the immovable object against the irresistible force and it all goes down on Saturday. Should be fun.

Follow Saul Bookman on Twitter.

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