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Big game basketball . . . If only

Saturday's USC-UCLA game at Pauley Pavilion should be one of the nation's great rivalry games. If only it were. But it's not. It's on the West Coast. It's on the Pac-12 Networks at 10 p.m. Eastern time. And even though it's in one of college basketball's historic places, Pauley isn't really all that special. Nor is this game. Can it get there?

Here's the issue about Saturday's USC-UCLA rivalry game at Pauley (7 p.m., Pac-12 Networks).

It's just not that big a deal. Not like it should be.

It's not like it doesn't matter. Both teams have NCAA seeds and Pac-12 finishes on the line. And for the 21-5 Trojans and the 23-3 Bruins, those slots could vary a couple of spots either way depending on their finish and specifically, how this game goes.

Then of course there's this. After four straight wins, USC's half-century-long second-team-in-town status has been flipped on its head the past two years. So add that to the disdain the folks in Westwood feel about anything in Cardinal and Gold.

So what more do we need here for a special rivalry game?

We need a special place to play that game and two sets of fans who make it matter almost more than anything. Which by definition, rules this game out on both counts.

We're thinking here of a recent Athlon survey of a dozen national college basketball media folks asking for their Top 10 college basketball arenas. Here's what experts from Jay Bilas to Dick "Hoops" Weiss came up with.  

Arena School Points (first-place)
1. Allen Fieldhouse Kansas 115 (9)
2. Cameron Indoor Stadium Duke 105 (1)
3. Hinkle Fieldhouse Butler 58 (1)
4. Rupp Arena Kentucky 50
5. Assembly Hall Indiana 49
6. Breslin Center Michigan State 37
7. The Palestra Penn/Philadelphia Big 5 35
8. Madison Square Garden St. John's/Big East Tourney 34 (1)
9. The Pit New Mexico 31
10. Gallagher-Iba Arena Oklahoma State 24

Having covered many games in eight of those 10, I wouldn't wildly disagree. Never been as big a fan of Cameron Indoor as most people. The students, the players and the coach have always been a bit off-putting. But that's just me.

I'd have the historic Hinkle and the Palestra hoops palaces higher. Both built in the 1920s, there are no better places to play college basketball than these temples to the game in Indy and Philly. If you ever get the chance, get to a game there.

Never been crazy about Rupp, despite my Kentucky heritage. Memorial Coliseum that Rupp succeeded was unsurpassed and the first great modern arena built in 1950 but it seated just 12,000. Next to it, Rupp just seems a bit sterile and impersonal in its convention center/mall setting when you get inside although the fans show up and it really matters to them.

But of the 30 arenas named in the panel's 120 picks, and where I've had the pleasure of covering games in 23, only five -- a mere five are from Pac-12 territory. And two of those were Gonzaga's McCarthey Athletic Center.

Arizona's McKale Center got two votes and Pauley just one. Imagine that. This legendary place where John Wooden worked his magic and where some $150,million went into an upgrade got a mere single vote. And yes, McKale deserves at least an honorable mention. The folks in Tucson really care, all 14,500 strong every game, about their hoops. Games there are fun if you're any good. Because the Wildcats almost certainly will be.

But that's about it. And that's a shame. It's a long time from the first of January through the end of August -- save a month or so for spring football. College basketball, especially the rivalry games, can be great fun.

And it's not that basketball in person on the West Coast is a disaster. Cal's Haas Pavilion and UW's historic Alaska Air Arena are great places to watch a game and with great fans when they're competitive. So are Oregon's new Matthew Knight Arena along with Utah and Colorado. Not bad. One new, one not so. But decent for conference rivalry games.

Oregon State's Gill Coliseum has that 1950's historic feel. Different but interesting when the fans turn out. Stanford is dreadful as is Arizona State and no one goes to games at Washington State so it doesn't much matter. But those three are very missable. Although missed the most in the Pac-12 is Oregon's legendary McArthur Court, which would have had a shot at the Top 10 list had it survived. It does show you can have a special hoops experience on the West Coast if everything works.

And San Diego State's Viejas Arena did get a vote and deserved it from our times there. 

But having been involved in and in the middle of rivalry games like Xavier-Cincinnati, Kentucky-Louisville, Purdue-Indiana, a number of Philly Big Five matchups, Villanova-Georgetown and for a time, Kentucky against the likes of North Carolina, Indiana, Notre Dame and even Tennessee, the buildup, the excitement, the anticipation made those games special. Most still are.

Just as this year's first USC-UCLA game ended up one of those great moments for Trojans fans at a sold-out Galen Center. But those have been too few and far-between. And as much as we challenge Andy Enfield and Steve Alford to get their teams in order on the floor, someone -- and who else can we look to but the coaches -- really needs to fire up the fans around here.

Who else is going to do that? The opportunity would seem to be there with the fading of the Lakers and the falling-short of the Clippers. The college game is pretty much the only game in town that matters -- or could matter. And the high school talent level in SoCal is off the charts.

Sure, there are some difficulties to getting it going. USC has no real living tradition despite Hall of Famers Jack Gardner, Tex Winter, Sam Barry, Bill Sharman and Alex Hannum and a spate of recent NBA players.

And while UCLA has all that glory,all that hardware, all those NCAA titles, all those best-of-all-time honors it plays in an arena where the oddly oblong floor could handle six simultaneous volleyball games with sight lines that aren't very good and the best seats are on high school bleachers.

And yes, there's the traffic. Any game starting between 5 and 7 p.m. is impossible to get to in Westwood on a weekday although a little better at USC's near-downtown location. And having seven different starting times for the Trojans this season as they chase TV tipoffs, from as early as 3:30 p.m. to as late as 8, it's hard for fans to keep up. We can only hope that Saturday's 7 p.m. tip avoids that problem and USC fans -- even -- find their way there.

And then, of course, there are the Pac-12 Networks that might as well have USC playing on the dark side of the moon for the final eight games this season, all limited by the league's minimal TV reach for the Trojans.

Which is why USC fans should make Pauley come alive Saturday. Who knows, it just might.

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at

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