When the Arizona Wildcats hired Lute Olson as coach in 1983, they literally have seen eye-to-eye with the UCLA Bruins.
So much so that since Arizona and ASU joined the league and made it the Pac-10 in 1978-79, the Wildcats have a 556-259 record in conference games. UCLA’s mark in that same span? The Bruins are almost identical at 555-261.
With the competition so very close, 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. 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. 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. Since Olson’s hire in 1983-84, Arizona holds a close lead of 44-42 in their series leading up to Saturday’s 8 p.m. game at Pauley Pavilion between the rivals. Before Olson’s arrival, UCLA held a 20-3 series lead.
“Coach Olson’s teams are always fundamentally sound, but equally important is his ability to get outstanding individuals to work into the team concept. … He has both the love and respect of all who know him well and the respect of all those who understand the great sport of basketball,” Wooden is quoted as saying in Olson’s book Lute!: The Seasons of My Life.
Nothing tops the rivalry between Arizona and UCLA in college basketball since the mid-1980s except Duke-North Carolina.
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.
Other factors for why the Arizona-UCLA rivalry is by far the best the West has to offer: The recruiting wars, the teams winning 68 percent of the regular-season conference titles in the last 40 years and the way the creators of their dominance — Wooden and Olson — are viewed as royalty in college basketball.
The rivalry’s latest coaches are UCLA’s Mick Cronin and Arizona’s Tommy Lloyd. Lloyd is 3-1 against Cronin having won the last three meetings, including last year’s Pac-12 tournament championship game.
The Bruins and Wildcats are the only teams west of Texas to win an NCAA title since 1997.
UCLA won its last title in 1995 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 excelling on the perimeter.
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 and again in 2020-21 in Cronin’s first year but couldn’t advance to the championship game.
UCLA and Arizona are in the top seven historically that have the most NBA first-round draft picks. UCLA is at No. 4 with 40 first-rounders and Arizona is at No. 7 with 26. No other West Coast program is in the top 20.
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.
“With UCLA, it’s always a big game as far as our fans are concerned, as well as our players,” Olson said in a press conference before Arizona played the Bruins in the 2005-06 season. “Their name still carries some of that magic from the Wooden years.”
Among the memorable Arizona-UCLA moments:
— Arizona clinched its first Pac-10 title in the 1985-86 season with Elliott, Kerr and Co., beating UCLA at Pauley Pavilion.
— 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 at Pauley Pavilion to send the game into overtime and the Wildcats prevailed 105-94 in the 1990-91 season. The Wildcats won the Pac-10 title that season with a 14-4 record. Harrick was not all that impressed with Arizona when interviewed a week after that game in a press conference. “Arizona has shown some inconsistency,” he said. “They played great against us but Arizona has shown tendencies not to play up to par every night. They could’ve easily lost three or four more games in the conference. They’ve gone beyond the call of (getting) breaks. They’ve been very fortunate. Brian Williams has shown up and not shown up. How can you predict he plays a game like he did against us?” Williams had 32 points and missed only one shot in the epic overtime win at Pauley Pavilion. Arizona was in a 7-1 run against UCLA at the time.
— In the game following that classic a year later, 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 3 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, Henderson and 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.
— The final game in 2013 in the Pac-12 tournament was highlighted by the “He Touched the Ball” episode. Sean 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.
— When Arizona was in the WAC playing for Fred “The Fox” Snowden, the Wildcats advanced to their first Elite Eight, matched against UCLA at Pauley Pavilion. The Bruins pulled away with a 12-0 run with less than 3 minutes remaining to win 82-66.
— A couple of Arizona’s greatest villains in college basketball are from UCLA — Reggie Miller and Don MacLean. Arizona fans loathed both when they played at McKale Center. MacLean broke Sean Elliott’s Pac-12 scoring record. A memorable moment with Miller on Feb. 13, 1986: The nation’s fourth-leading scorer at the time, Miller was assessed his fifth foul against Arizona. The 13,316 at McKale Center grew louder with a mix of derisive cheers and boos with every step he took toward the Bruins’ bench. When Miller reached the bench, he looked at a referee on the baseline and rubbed his pointing and middle finger with his thumb together in a payola gesture, suggesting Arizona paid him off. McKale was never more rabid. Seven minutes still remained. Miller was subjected to watch Arizona shift the power of the conference to Tucson. The Wildcats’ 85-60 rout ended with reserve freshman forward Bruce Wheatley banking in a 25-foot shot at the buzzer, one last dagger to Miller and the Bruins in front of the reveling McKale crowd. A month later, Arizona would clinch its first Pac-10 title with a victory against UCLA at Pauley Pavilion.
— None of the last 15 meetings dating to the 2015-16 season have been decided by less than five points, including Arizona’s 58-52 win over the Bruins on Jan. 21 at McKale Center. The Wildcats ended UCLA’s 14-game winning streak in that game. The Bruins, the regular-season champions, are on another run with nine consecutive wins heading into Saturday’s game.
— The last game decided by less than five points was UCLA’s 87-84 win in Los Angeles on Jan. 7, 2016. Bryce Alford, son of former UCLA coach Steve Alford, scored 25 points, hit a go-ahead 3-pointer with 1.8 seconds left. Arizona, ranked No. 7, lost to the unranked Bruins despite 15 points and 15 rebounds by Ryan Anderson and 12 points and 12 rebounds from Kaleb Tarczewski. Harrick and Olson sat next to each other during the game.
— Who can forget the late-timeout drama between Alford and Miller in the 2016-17 season? With 0.9 seconds left and Arizona up 11 against UCLA in the Pac-12 tournament semifinal game, Miller took a timeout. The gesture was clearly in response to UCLA’s win over the Wildcats at McKale Center a couple of weeks prior when Alford called a timeout with 2 seconds left despite having a five-point lead.
— Drama is building again in the rivalry with Cronin alleging recently that Arizona athletic director Dave Heeke being part of the NCAA tournament selection committee could adversely affect UCLA’s seed because of backlash of the Bruins leaving to the Big Ten in two years. Soon after UCLA announced its move to the Big Ten, UCLA AD Martin Jarmond was removed from being the Pac-12 rep on the committee and was replaced by Heeke. Cronin remarked that UCLA rated behind Arizona on the No. 2 seed line last week was “comical.” Arizona’s Azuolas Tubelis (Pac-12’s leading scorer and rebounder) and UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez (best player on the regular-season conference championship team) are also part of a debate for the Pac-12 Player of the Year honor. Lloyd is avoiding any bulletin-board material. “We’re playing a great UCLA team on the road on Senior Night,” Lloyd said. “They are deserving of all the accolades going their way, and we’re going to go and give it our best shot.”
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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. He became an educator five years ago and is presently a special education teacher at Gallego Fine Arts Intermediate in the Sunnyside Unified School District.