Arizona Basketball

Why Arizona Wildcats vs. UCLA is the Duke vs. North Carolina of Pac-12


Think Allonzo Trier’s return made the Arizona-UCLA matchup juicier? His timely presence is but a smidgen of what this rivalry has to offer after what has built up since Lute Olson came on to the scene 33 years ago.

When Arizona Wildcats athletic director Cedric Dempsey hired Olson as coach in 1983, UCLA’s dominance in the West Coast came to an end.

The reality of that signifies why Arizona and UCLA comprise one of the best rivalries in college basketball. In the 1960s and most of the 1970s, no program could dream to challenge the UCLA dominance that John Wooden achieved in Westwood, Calif.

Could one program actually look UCLA in the eye without flinching after the Bruins won 10 national titles and advanced to 10 consecutive Final Fours under Wooden?

Three years after Wooden retired in 1975, Arizona and ASU joined the conference to make it the Pac-10. Five years after that, in 1983, Arizona’s version of Wooden, the Hall of Famer Olson, changed the landscape of West Coast basketball.

The Wildcats are by no means the equal of UCLA in the history of the sport, but from 1983 on, Arizona does not take a backseat to the Bruins. The Wildcats are UCLA’s equal in stature. Since Olson’s hire in 1983-84, Arizona holds a close lead of 39-34 in the series.

“The Arizona-UCLA game is the signature game of college basketball in the western United States,” UCLA legend Bill Walton, whose son Luke attended Arizona, said in 2013 while analyzing a game between the Wildcats and Bruins.

Nothing tops the rivalry between Arizona and UCLA in college basketball since the mid-1980s except Duke-North Carolina and Louisville-Kentucky.

The reasons include the prolific amount of NBA players produced by the programs, the dramatic moments that impacted the conference race and championships, their nine Final Four appearances and the two national titles won by the Bruins and Wildcats.

Other factors for why the Arizona-UCLA rivalry is by far the best the West has to offer: The recruiting wars, the teams winning 75 percent of the conference titles in the last 30 years and the way the creators of their dominance — Wooden and Olson — are viewed as royalty in college basketball.

The rivalry has relatively young coaches Steve Alford, 52, of UCLA and Sean Miller, 48, of Arizona commanding their respective programs. Miller holds a 5-2 edge since Alford was hired by UCLA in 2013.

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The nine combined Final Four appearances between UCLA and Arizona since the Pac-10 was formed in 1978-79 is the most by a conference duo this side of the Big 12.

The most Final Four appearances since 1978-79 by the top two teams in a conference:

Duke (12) and North Carolina (12), ACC: 24
Michigan State (7) and Indiana (4) or Michigan (4), Big Ten: 15
Kentucky (8) and Florida (5), SEC: 13
UConn (5) and Georgetown (4) or Syracuse (4), Big East: 13
Kansas (8) and Oklahoma (2) or Oklahoma State (2), Big 12: 12
UCLA (5) and Arizona (4), Pac-12: 9

No other West Coast team other than UNLV, during its glorious run in the late 1980s and early 1990s, has come close to the NCAA tournament success of UCLA and Arizona.

The Running Rebels, under the late Hall of Fame coach Jerry Tarkanian, went to three Final Fours (1987, 1990 and 1991) as a member of the Big West Conference. Stanford and Utah went in 1998. Utah, coached by Rick Majerus, was part of the WAC at the time.

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Since Arizona went to its first Final Four in 1987-88 under Olson, the Wildcats and UCLA have achieved unmatched success in the NCAA tournament compared to their West Coast counterparts.

The lone exception is UNLV, who won the NCAA title in 1991 while a member of the Big West.

The Bruins and Wildcats are the only teams west of the Mississippi to win an NCAA title since 1995, when the Bruins captured the title under Jim Harrick. That team included Cameron Dollar, Toby Bailey, Charles and Ed O’Bannon, J.R. Henderson and Kris Johnson.

Arizona won its only title in 1997 with Mike Bibby, Miles Simon, Michael Dickerson and Jason Terry ruling the perimeter.

Stanford could have joined Arizona and UCLA in 1998 but lost to Kentucky in the national title game.

Arizona came close to another title in 2001 but lost to Duke in the championship game. UCLA had three appearances in the Final Four from 2006-08 but came up empty.

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NCAA.com graphic showing UCLA and Arizona are in the top six of schools with most NBA players:

Arizona and UCLA are among the top six programs with former players in the NBA.

Arizona has produced a total of 69 NBA draft selections in its history, including 21 first-round picks. Thirteen of Arizona’s last 16 NBA draft picks have been first-rounders.

UCLA has 113 NBA draft selections in its history with 38 of them selected in the first round.

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Including Darrick Martin’s buzzer-beater that ended Arizona’s 71-game winning streak at McKale Center in 1992 and the “He Touched the Ball” episode in 2013, the Bruins and Wildcats have shared in some monumental games.

Among the most memorable:

— Arizona clinched its first Pac-10 title in the 1985-86 season with Elliott, Kerr and Co., beating UCLA at Pauley Pavilion. A month earlier in Tucson, Arizona took command in the conference race by routing UCLA 85-60 as Wildcat nemesis Reggie Miller fouled out with more than seven minutes remaining.

— Elliott broke Lew Alcindor’s conference scoring record in 1989 against UCLA at McKale Center and finished with 2,555 career points.

— Arizona’s Chris Mills made a last-second jumper in 1991 at Pauley Pavilion to send the game into overtime and the Wildcats prevailed 105-94. The Wildcats won the Pac-10 title that season with a 14-4 record.

— In the game following that classic, Martin and UCLA upset Arizona 89-87, ending the Wildcats’ 71-game winning streak at McKale Center. Martin’s game-winning off-balance shot with three seconds left over Damon Stoudamire sent the UCLA bench into a frenzy in front of the stunned crowd.

— In the season Arizona won its national championship (1996-97), UCLA swept the season series with an overtime win at Pauley Pavilion and a two-point escape at McKale Center. The Bruins, who featured Charles O’Bannon, J.R. Henderson and Toby Bailey, won the Pac-10 regular season by three games with a 15-3 record.

— Arizona went through a 13-4 stretch against the Bruins, culminating in 2005 with another sweep of UCLA that led to another regular-season Pac-10 title for Arizona. In that season, Salim Stoudamire drilled a long three-pointer late in the game to beat the Bruins at McKale Center.

— In 2003, UCLA (at 9-19) upset the top-ranked Wildcats 96-89 in overtime in a quarterfinal game of the Pac-10 tournament.

— UCLA turned the tide against Arizona in the series during the Wildcats’ lean years from 2006-09, with Olson retiring and two interim staffs taking over. UCLA won eight consecutive games against Arizona and advanced to three Final Fours in that stretch under Ben Howland.

— Miller, hired in 2009-10 by Arizona, is 11-8 against the Bruins, including winning four of the last five games. The 2013 Pac-12 tournament was highlighted by the “He Touched the Ball” episode. Miller argued with a referee, who called a double-dribble violation against Arizona’s Mark Lyons, that UCLA’s Jordan Adams touched the ball in the process. Miller was assessed a technical foul and the Bruins prevailed 66-64. Miller was later fined $25,000 by the Pac-12 for allegedly confronting a ref and throwing a tirade in front of a conference staff member in a corridor of the MGM Grand Arena in Las Vegas. A couple of weeks later, it was revealed by CBSSports.com that former Pac-12 director of officiating Ed Rush allegedly placed a bounty on Miller in the Pac-12 tournament, forcing the resignation of Rush.

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Arizona and UCLA have unparalleled success in the Pac-12 over the last 30 years and that has translated into national honors no other conference team can match.

Not since 1959, when California won the NCAA title under Pete Newell, has the Pac-12 produced a national champion other than Arizona and UCLA.

UCLA has 11 titles, 10 of them under Wooden from 1964-75, and the other was achieved under Harrick in 1995. Arizona won its NCAA championship in 1997 with Olson as coach.

The Bruins and Wildcats have combined to share at least 23 of the last 31 regular-season titles in the Pac-12, including nine of the last 14.

Since the Pac-10 formed in 1978-79, UCLA and Arizona have the most conference victories by far. Arizona has a 476-221 record in conference games. UCLA is next with a 471-229 record.

Stanford (373-325) is the only other conference team with a winning record since Arizona and ASU joined in 1978.

UCLA and Arizona have combined for at least a share of 24 titles while Oregon State (five), Stanford (four), Washington (three), Oregon (two), Cal (one) and USC (one) have combined for 16.

Miller admired the development of the Arizona-UCLA rivalry as a player at Pitt in the late 1980s.

“Everybody in this country respects the great teams, players, coaches,” Miller was quoted as saying by TucsonCitizen.com. “When you would watch that game, whether it would be in McKale or Pauley Pavilion, you knew you were getting high quality basketball.”

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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.

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