As ESPN’s Jay Bilas said “there should be a vibe in the building” on Saturday when No. 5 UCLA visits No. 4 Arizona, with the popular College GameDay show in McKale Center.
It’s the game of the week and seemingly/arguably could be the game of the year in the Pac-12 Conference. It harkens back to the great Arizona-UCLA rivalry that was in the late 1980s, 1990s and parts of the 2000s.
“It was a hard place to play in then but harder now,” Bilas said of McKale Center, referring to when he was an assistant at Duke.
“It’s an amazing atmosphere, and to get as many people as they get. It’s loud and the people are engaged. Sitting in the stands (as he did for the USC game on Thursday) I heard a lot of good officials in the crowd. They have excellent vision and can see across the court when someone steps out of bounds. That’s impressive.”
He was joking, of course, but he didn’t joke about what a good game it should be. He and ESPN analyst Jay Williams (another Duke alum) waxed poetic on a number of topics Friday.
Q to Bilas: What were your impressions of Arizona on Thursday?
“Arizona is so good. They are so balanced. They defend at a really high level. Even though they see a lot of zone, they’ve gotten better with the zone. The reason is most teams can’t guard Lauri Markkanen off ball screens. They would prefer to pack the lane. He’s showing his versatility in that he can do a lot more than shoot from the perimeter. He’s a really good player.”
Q to Bilas: Everyone talks about guard play in the tournament. Is Arizona’s good enough to get them to the Final Four?
“Yes. I think it’s a Final Four-caliber team. Parker Jackson-Cartwright does a good job, and they have Kadeem Allen who can play the point. They have a number of guys who can handle it. They don’t have a ball-dominant guard. That’s one of the things I like about Lonzo Ball. He can control the game without dominating the ball, and that’s not easy to do. Just because Parker and Kadeem aren’t the player that Lonzo Ball is doesn’t mean Arizona isn’t just as good if not better. Having a great point guard is great. It’s like having a great quarterback. They’ve got good point guards.”
Q to Bilas: What are your thoughts on Trier? And he’s not like Ball who can control the game without the ball.
“I don’t think he needs to dominate the ball. He may be comfortable in catching the ball and then doing something. He’s not necessarily one of those guys who is going to do something by moving without the ball. He can catch the ball in a difficult position and create something. He got going through other means (on Thursday). He can drive it so effectively.”
Q to Jay Bilas: How does it feel to be at the bottom of the map (Tucson) for the game?
“Awesome. I love Tucson. It’s a great place. I sent a picture of Steve Kerr’s jersey to him last night and he said he thought they should have hung it at Dirtbags where he did his best work.”
Q to Bilas: Back in the early 1980s, former UA coach Lute Olson recruited you to Iowa. How was that?
“When he started recruiting me, I loved him. I still do. He’s one of the great coaches and great gentlemen I’ve ever met. My mom was going to Iowa and it didn’t matter where I was going. She loved him. That was a done deal once he walked in the door. She thought he was Paul Newman.”
Q to Bilas: Seems to me the UCLA-Arizona rivalry might be a little underrated. How can you compare the rivalry with UCLA and Arizona compared to the one’s you’ve seen?
“I don’t know if it’s underrated. When I was growing up it wasn’t a rivalry (in the 1970s). Arizona wasn’t near the same level until Coach Olson was here for a few years … ’87-88 was when it started to become a fair fight. But it’s become one of the great rivalries in basketball over the years. … The Pac-12 championship seems to run through those two places. For years it ran only through Westwood, but now it runs through Tucson and Westwood. That’s what makes it big.”
Q to Bilas: How strong is the Pac-12?
“Really strong, especially at the top. … The strength of the league is predicated by how many nationally relevant teams you’ve got and how many teams can compete for the whole thing. I think the Pac-12 has three — Oregon, Arizona and UCLA is capable of winning this thing. I don’t think there are that many teams that have three.”
Q to Williams: You’re a former guard. Have you tried to put yourself into Trier’s shoes and what he has gone through this season?
“Not to get into the details of the legalities of what went on with Trier. But as a guard it’s really frustrating to watch your teammates and see all the injuries the team has gone through year and you are a fixture that could be brought to the team. When he came back I told people, ‘Here they come.’ If I’m Allonzo Trier I’m pissed off and I’m playing with a chip on my shoulder. I have something to prove. This is a Final Four team and a team a lot of people did not talk about. A lot of people didn’t see it. When Allonzo Trier came back, you could feel the team energy change. You feel this is a team that should be in Phoenix. The thing about the tournament is the best team doesn’t always win. If you are asking me to bet some money on a team, I put my money a team right here.”
More from Jay Williams: He talks about his famous no-call in 2001 title game vs. Arizona