UCLA basketball has had a dark few years.
There’s no question that the Bruins have struggled mightily the past few years, and namely the past three. It goes without saying that, for a half-decade, UCLA has not been the Pac-10/12′s flagship program, that the Bruins are not the best basketball program on the West Coast.
This, of course, will undoubtedly turn heads. UCLA is one of those programs that are expected to do well, dominate their region unquestioned and unrivaled. UCLA’s history has dictated that as the standard but, over the past few years, control has been given away to another program in the conference.
To those goddamn Arizona Wildcats.
Of course, nothing special has come out of Tuscon — or, as some like to call it, the “armpit of Arizona” — recently, and it’s not as if the Wildcats have done much themselves over the past five years. Indeed, the ‘Cats have missed the tournament three of the past four years, with an Elite Eight appearance and a conference title thrown in three years ago.
But UCLA had their run of Pac-10 dominance back in the mid-2000s behind head coach Ben Howland’s “Ben Ball” attack which led to three consecutive Final Fours. Before that three-year stint though, Arizona managed to snag the conference on a regular basis, with UCLA soiling away with inconsistency during the Steve Lavin era.
It’s even playing field now, though, with both programs trying to prove themselves resurgent, both trying to regain dominance over this conference, once a prestigious basketball conference, but now a conference with a disastrous season in 2011-12 that is now considered “under-the-radar” in terms of talent and depth.
It’s easy to see that Arizona’s got the upper-hand in this renewed rivalry between Pac-12 foes. Sitting at No. 6 in the AP poll, with a 16-1 overall record and a 4-1 record in conference, the ‘Cats have proven themselves to be worthy of national title consideration when March rolls around.
Number-wise, it doesn’t seem as if UCLA is far behind, but it feels that way. Despite a 15-4 record, the Bruins went unranked after losing to No. 21 Oregon, their first Pac-12 loss, a team that also beat Arizona, although they did so in a dominant fashion, nearly taking the win wire-to-wire.
Arizona’s done this year what UCLA couldn’t, beating teams they were supposed to beat, winning big when it was expected, and pulling out close games to tough competition.
However, the difference is not so clear-cut. UCLA and Arizona have had a fair share of common opponents and Arizona’s biggest win this year has come against a top-10 Florida team, but has not impressed against other teams. Meanwhile, UCLA’s biggest win came against No. 7 Missouri back and December which comprised the meat of UCLA’s ten-game winning streak before falling to Oregon.
The teams are evenly-matched, it seems, and there really is no conclusion as to who comes out of this game unscathed.
What is clear, though, is that this game is beyond important for the Bruins and just as important for Arizona. UCLA has had its success met with much-deserved criticism, essentially an elimination of goodwill that Howland built up during his Final Four runs and Arizona has been labelled overrated for their “lucky” victories over seemingly-inferior teams.
For these Bruins, though, a win means that UCLA basketball is, indeed, “back.” Back to maintaining control of the conference, back to claiming the rest of the Pac-12 teams as its whipping boys.
A loss, and it’ll prove Arizona is the dominant program in the conference and it’ll mean that it stays that way for awhile.
Time will tell and things could get ugly. This is a rivalry, after all.