LOS ANGELES -- It's March, so let the madness begin.
UCLA's vaunted freshmen will get their first taste of meaningful March basketball when the Bruins (21-7, 11-4 Pac-12) face No. 11 Arizona (23-5, 11-5) on Saturday at 6 p.m. PT at Pauley Pavilion in a game with Pac-12 title and NCAA tournament seeding implications.
There will be no shortage of hype, either, as ESPN's "College GameDay" crew will be on hand for the game, raising the electricity to another level in a rivalry game between the Pac-12's two most storied teams and preseason conference title favorites.
UCLA is half a game behind Oregon (23-6, 12-4) for first place in the conference and can claim at least a share of the regular-season title by winning its last three games. Arizona sits a game behind the Ducks, and will need to win out and hope Oregon stumbles during a road trip next week to Colorado and Utah.
UCLA is projected as a No. 7 seed in Joe Lunardi's most recent Bracketology and Arizona is a No. 4 seed, so both teams have room to go up or down. This nationally televised game between traditional powerhouses will go a long way in determining which way they go, so there is no doubt March is coming in like a lion.
"Every game is do or die for us from here on out," UCLA guard Larry Drew II said. "We're approaching every game like it is a must-win, and that starts with this game against Arizona."
Drew is one of the few UCLA players with experience in important games in March. The senior North Carolina transfer was a freshman on the Tar Heels' 2009 national championship team. Travis Wear and David Wear were freshmen at North Carolina when the Tar Heels played in the NIT. Sophomore Norman Powell did not play in the postseason last year, and freshmen Shabazz Muhammad, Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams and Tony Parker are about to embark on the first March of their college careers.
"It's special, there's no question," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. "This is why kids come to UCLA, to have 'College GameDay' on campus against Arizona. It doesn't get any better than that."
Especially if the Bruins can repeat the performance they put on in an 84-73 victory over the Wildcats on Jan. 24 in Tucson. In that game, Muhammad had 23 points, Adams had 15 points and five rebounds, Anderson had 12 rebounds, and Parker had six points and three rebounds in 10 minutes.
Certainly that game was big -- as it is any time UCLA and Arizona meet on the hardwood -- but Saturday's game has implications that are magnified simply because of the time of year. The freshmen showed Wednesday they are up to the challenge of playing well late in the season when they combined for 66 points and 29 rebounds in a 79-74 victory over Arizona State, but that was February and the Sun Devils. Playing the Wildcats in March is a whole different ballgame.
"I think it's kind of self-explanatory," Howland said. "They know where we are. They understand. All these kids are from very successful high school programs and have been in big games before so they get it."
Arizona will be coming into the game hungry. The Wildcats lost to USC on Wednesday and figure to be playing with a heightened sense of urgency as they try to cling to their Pac-12 title hopes. A loss would drop them two games back in the loss column with only one game to play. Adams, second on the Bruins in scoring with 15.4 points per game, said the Bruins had better be ready.
"They're coming off a loss and they don't want to lose twice in L.A.," Adams said. "So they're going to come out fighting, and we have to match their intensity."
It's the kind of mental edge Howland said his team took into Tucson earlier this season when the Bruins were coming off a loss to Oregon -- their first conference loss of the season and a loss that ended a 10-game win streak.
"Any time a good team is coming off a loss, it kind of gives you that edge of 'I don't want to feel this pain again,'" Howland said. "That's kind of how they are coming in to this game after losing to USC. That's how we went into their game losing against Oregon. We have to understand that and know that going in to this."
The result in Tucson and Arizona's loss to USC on Wednesday notwithstanding, Arizona is not a team to be taken lightly. The Wildcats have been ranked in the top 12 all season and have a top-15 RPI. They have wins over No. 5 Miami and No. 8 Florida this season, showing they are capable of beating some of the best teams in the country.
"They are very, very good, and you know they are going to bring their A-game," Howland said. "You speak to the fact that 'College GameDay' is here and it's a big game nationally, they know that, too. They're going to bring their A-game, as are we, so it's going to be a very competitive, tough game."
As games in March should be.