LOS ANGELES -- It's rivalry week for the UCLA and Arizona basketball teams.
No offense to USC and Arizona State, but when it comes to the hardwood, these teams have only one Pac-12 Conference rival: each other.
They are far and away the two most accomplished teams in the Pac-12, and it's a special affair every time they meet. Thursday's matchup in Tucson will be no exception, as the two teams picked as preseason favorites for the conference title will lock horns in an ESPN2 game to keep from falling too far out of that race.
The preseason national rankings had Arizona at No. 12 and UCLA at No. 13. The Bruins have since dropped from the rankings, but the game is still important now that the Bruins (15-4 overall, 5-1 Pac-12 ) and No. 6 Wildcats (16-1, 4-1) each have losses to conference-leading Oregon (16-2, 5-0) and neither gets another shot at the Ducks.
That means the loser of this game will fall two games behind Oregon, and, silly as it might seem to say this early in the conference race, two games might be too much to overcome in the race for the regular-season conference title because it’s difficult to find two losses on Oregon’s remaining schedule.
“We’ve got to get this one,” forward Travis Wear said. “This is really must-win for us. After losing to Oregon we really need to bounce back. ... I think we’re all feeling that way with Oregon not having to play Arizona or us again.”
It’s only fitting the game between these teams has some stakes. It often does, as they have finished 1-2 in the conference six times, most recently in 2010-11. These are by far the two most accomplished teams in the Pac-12 with a combined 22 conference titles in the 33 years that both have been members of the same conference.
They have nine Final Four appearances, five national title game appearances and two national championships between them during that span. Stanford, in 1998, is the only other conference team during that span to make a Final Four. Utah also made the Final Four in 1998 but was not in the Pac-12/10 at the time.
“It’s a great rivalry,” UCLA coach Ben Howland said. “You had Lute Olson there so many years who did such a wonderful job, and he really built that program into a national power. UCLA has been a national power since the days of John Wooden. Obviously when you have two real good programs playing each other every year twice, there’s going to be a rivalry.”
Other than during the 2010-11 season, however, there hasn’t been much on the line between the teams in recent years. For most of this century, one team or the other has had a down period, and sometimes both. The last time both teams finished in the final top 25 was 2001, but there is a chance that could happen again with Arizona entrenched at No. 6 and UCLA teetering just outside the rankings.
"Obviously they've always been a great team, and this year especially they're really, really good,” forward David Wear said. "I think everyone is excited just because of the hype about these two teams before the season started. I think we were always looking forward to this conference game."
Travis Wear said the rivalry "rivals that of or maybe is even more intense than a UCLA-USC game." The Wildcats are asking fans to wear all white. And the McKale Center is already one of the most difficult places to play in the conference. Arizona is 9-0 at home this season and has outscored opponents by an average of 15.7 points in those games. UCLA hasn’t won in Tucson since 2008.
“This is by far going to be the most hostile environment we’ve been in all year,” Travis Wear said. “It’s going to be a sell-out game. The fans are going to be ruthless. ... It’s going to be a crazy game. It’s just going to be loud.”
UCLA leading scorer Shabazz Muhammad acknowledged this week that the Bruins might have been looking past Oregon on Saturday, when the Ducks defeated UCLA 76-67 at Pauley Pavilion. That loss ended a 10-game win streak for UCLA.
“We took that game for granted,” Muhammad said. “Oregon wanted it more. Oregon had the bigger ranking than we did, and we thought we were the biggest man on campus and we would just walk through them and we got lost.”
There will be no looking past Arizona, however.
“It’s a very good rivalry,” Muhammad said. “I can’t wait to get down there to Arizona. I know it’s a tough atmosphere. It’s going to test my ability to compete and see what happens. ... We’ve got to win this game no questions asked, especially since we lost against Oregon when we thought we were going to win. So we have to come in there and win this game.”
Such is the mindset you have to have during rivalry week.