Even saying it conjures up a great deal of emotion in fans of UCLA basketball. The Wildcats and the Bruins have been the pre-eminent programs in the PAC-10 Conference for the past 20 years. Sure, Oregon State was good for a short while, and ford had a bit of a nice run, but the conference really has come down to Arizona and UCLA.
Ask yourself this question: Are there any other teams in the conference that when the opposition beats them, their fans storm the floor? That's the sign of perceived excellence, and perception, in many ways, is reality.
For most of the past 20 years Arizona has been the team that others in the conference have been chasing. For the past two seasons the pendulum of power has been swinging back to Los Angeles.
Now comes one of the most important games in the history of the rivalry. On Saturday morning in Tucson the Wildcats will host the Bruins in what I truly believe is a pivotal game in both the short term and long term.
UCLA comes into the game not exactly setting the world on fire. On Thursday they barely defeated a pretty poor Arizona State squad. The Sun Devils have been playing better lately, taking both Oregon and Washington State down to the wire, so the final margin of victory for the Bruins was not unreasonable. What should make Bruin fans nervous was the way in which the Bruins won the game. UCLA had to come back from a 10-point deficit fairly deep into the second half. We can speculate all we want on how the Bruins showed grit in coming back on the road, but this team is just not playing the kind of basketball you need to be playing going into March. Using last year as a comparison, the 2005-2006 Bruins were, by this time, blowing out teams like ASU from the opening tip.
Arizona, on the other hand, has its back up against the wall in more ways than one. USC defeated the Cats on Thursday, completing a season sweep of the Trojans for the first time in more than 20 years (there's that number again). Arizona sits at 8-6 in the conference with the very real possibility of losing all of its final conference regular season games. I know that a scenario like that is unlikely, much like it was/is with Duke in the ACC, but the fact that we can even talk about that as a possibility was unfathomable several months ago. Perhaps more importantly, Arizona's program has its back up against the wall. UCLA has won the last four games against the Wildcats, and by winning on Saturday, when the Bruins are clearly not coming into the game with a great deal of momentum, they would in effect be telling the Wildcats, the PAC-10 and the rest of the college basketball world that the they are now the clear standard by which success should be measured, at least west of the Mississippi River. To reiterate to stress its importance: Arizona needs to win on Saturday much more than the Bruins do. Arizona needs to stop what is essentially a six-week slide of poor performances (with some exceptions), and stop a bigger slide that began last season when the Bruins simply beat them up three different times in three different locales. UCLA doesn't need this game in the sense that it will make or break its season, but the coaches and players have to know that by winning they will: help to sew up a top seed in the NCAA Tournament, help to win the regular season conference title, beat Arizona for the fifth straight time and, perhaps more significantly, turn the cracks in the Arizona façade into deep fissures that will be felt well past the end of this season. Yes, Virginia, this game is that important.
I'm not going to spend too much time on the individual players for Arizona. Most of us already know them and their tendencies, etc. But for those that need the information, here are the Wildcats:
Starting at the point will be senior Mustafa Shakur (6'3" 170 lbs.). Shakur is averaging in double figures at 13 PPG, is shooting 48% from the floor and 37% from behind the arc, and is dishing out 7.3 APG. He is also averaging 3.4 TPG and this is the tendency that should worry Coach Lute Olson. Shakur's play at the beginning of the year was very good but has been in steady decline since before the home loss that Arizona suffered to Oregon. Shakur's play in the last three minutes Thursday night was probably more directly responsible for the loss to USC than any other player on the floor. Shakur has fallen back into the tendency of making very poor decisions at critical points in a game. Darren Collison should be matched-up on Shakur, and Collison will have a quickness advantage, but if his shoulder isn't 100%, then Shakur will be stronger. Russell Westbrook will also probably get critical minutes against Shakur.
Olson has been starting freshman Jordan Hill (6'8" 210 lbs.) the past several games at the expense of junior guard Jawann McClellan (6'4" 214 lbs.). Hill has provided energy, rebounding and a defensive presence that McClellan has been unable to produce over the past several weeks because of his gimpy knees. Hill is a solid low-post threat, which the Cats have lacked this season, but he is limited offensively. He is a poor shooter, not even wanting to take a shot outside of 8 feet. He has attempted no threes, and has poor hands, and shoots a Lorenzo Mata-esque 46% shooting from the free-throw line. McClellan is much more of an offensive threat, especially from three. McClellan really is a sight to watch these days. He can't really move laterally, thus taking away even his limited ability to get to the basket, and he is an absolute nightmare on defense now, which is saying something considering how mediocre Arizona's defense has been this season. Regardless of who's on the floor, expect to see Josh Shipp guarding them. Shipp is not playing well on either end of the court right now so Howland will put him on the least effective offensive weapon that Arizona has right now. Shipp is strong enough to move Hill around and (this is how bad McClellan's knee is right now), Shipp is much quicker than McClellan.
The traditional two-guard spot is being handled by freshman Chase Budinger (6'7" 190 lbs.). Budinger has a very good outside shot and great up-and-down athleticism. He has also been playing better as of late, being a bit more focused on defense and shooting the ball with more efficiency and consistency. He is second on the team in scoring at 15.9 PPG and is the big three-point threat on the team. He doesn't move well laterally and settles quite a bit for jumpers. He does average 5.9 RPG but this total appears to drop when facing superior competition. There was talk that Budinger hit the freshman "wall" earlier, but he now seems to be playing through it. There have also been questions about his toughness, and he should get to see a lot of Arron Afflalo matched on him and that will truly test just how tough the Wildcat freshman is and what he can deal with under pressure. Afflalo, if he gets Budinger, will recognize that he doesn't put the ball on the floor much and get up in him to take away space for him to shoot from the outside.
Sophomore Marcus Williams, (6'6" 195 lbs.) will play the power forward spot and likely be guarded by Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. Williams hasn't been the star player for the Cats since his injury and one-game suspension late in January. In fact, one can argue that Budinger has been more of a force and more influential that Williams has been. Williams is first on the team in scoring at 16.7 PPG and is second in rebounding at 7.1 RPG. He can play inside and out and has the uncanny ability to get hot at the right times from the outside. The trouble is that he hasn't been doing it much lately. Conversely, Luc has also been playing like something is "off" with his game. He is rebounding well and even playing moments of stellar defense, but it's not as consistent as it was a season ago, while isn't scoring at anywhere near the clip he was at this time last season. This match-up is really going to go to the player that really wants the game more.
Senior center Ivan Radenovic (6'10" 220 lbs.) has been a steady force for the Cats this season and probably the team's most consistent performer night in and night out. He is averaging 15.5 PPG and 7.9 RPG. He has had good games against the Bruins the past two seasons because Lorenzo Mata has had trouble guarding big men who can move out to perimeter, as Radenovic can, and Radenovic can shoot over Alfred Aboya because of Aboya's lack of length against Radenovic. This will be the toughest match-up for the Bruins.
McClellan will be coming off the bench as will junior guard Daniel Dillon (6'3" 207 lbs). Dillon really only gets spot minutes here and there as Olson has gone to basically a 6-man rotation. Arizona fans have been perplexed by the lack of minutes for Dillon much in the same way Bruin fans have asked about Westbrook. Dillon has been solid in his time on the floor and has been a more consistent shooter than some of the Cats' more "name" players. Junior Bret Brielmaier (6'6" 214 lbs.) has returned form injury, but is only now getting into game shape so don't expect to see much of him.
Arizona has several intangibles working in this game. They are playing at McKale Center; they are actually playing better now than several weeks ago and the Bruins seem to be stuttering a bit. Plus, as I said before, the Wildcats need this game a lot more than the Bruins need it.
UCLA is coming off another sub-par performance, one in which they played as if all they needed to do was to show up in order to win. The Bruins have had that attitude all too frequently this season. But, ASU plays a style that really bothers the Bruins, with the slowdown spread offense. Arizona doesn't play that way. They want to get up and down the floor, which is a style that better suits the Bruins. When UCLA beat the Wildcats in January, they did so without Luc, which I think is a more impressive win than beating USC without Josh Shipp. UCLA will see more zone than man because Arizona has to know that the Bruins have more trouble against a zone. But Arizona's 1-3-1 zone is full of holes that the Bruins can exploit.
Coach Howland will know the implications of this game, both for the here-and-now and for the future. I think Howland knows how to stress this to his players. I expect to see a very good game from both teams, with UCLA giving one of its better performances this season (which they have tended to do in big games), so the game should go to the more consistent team -- the better "team." Howland said he was worried about the ASU game and in 20/20 hindsight he had a right to feel that way. He's not saying the same thing now. I wonder why? Arizona may have the home crowd but unless the Bruins play flat this game is a match-up problem for the Wildcats much like West Virginia and ASU were for the Bruins.