It's always special when UCLA meets Arizona on the basketball court, but this year will be even more so for two of the most storied programs in the Pac-12 because their game Thursday night at the Honda Center is serving as this year's John R. Wooden Classic.
The Wooden Classic is an annual tribute to UCLA's legendary coach that has been played each year since 1994, but this is the first time it will feature the Bruins playing a conference game and the first time the Wooden Classic will be only one game.
In the past, the event featured back-to-back nonconference games on a Saturday, but because UCLA is playing all games away from campus this season during the renovation of Pauley Pavilion, concessions had to be made for this year's version.
"It’s different, but I’m glad that we’re honoring Coach and keeping that alive," coach Ben Howland said. "I think it’s important."
Perhaps the struggling Bruins can use the occasion to help turn around their season. Last year, the Bruins did exactly that when they entered the Wooden Classic against Brigham Young with a record of 5-4 and no significant victories on their resume. They handed then-No. 16 and previously undefeated BYU an 86-79 loss. UCLA won 16 of its next 21 games and made the NCAA tournament.
This year, the Bruins enter at 7-7 and again without a signature victory. UCLA also lost its first two conference games last weekend, so it's looking to get into the Pac-12 victory column as well. Because of that, the players say their focus in more on the game.
"It’ll definitely start to feel like that more as we get closer to the game because Coach will definitely make sure we know it’s something big for us and something we want to win for Coach Wooden," guard Lazeric Jones said. "The fact that we’re playing a conference team is kind of different, but right now it’s just a game we need to win."
It won't be easy. Arizona is precisely the type of team that has given UCLA problems this season: Small, quick and good shooters.
The Wildcats (10-4) use a three-guard lineup and have no starters over 6-feet-7. They like to run the ball, which could serve as a problem for the Bruins, who tend toward the big and slow side. Center Joshua Smith, for example, will have to match up against 6-7 forward Jesse Perry.
"Arizona is a very hard team for us to match up with because it’s basically like playing against five guards," Howland said. "They just push it at you. Made or miss, they really come at you and see what they can get early in their offense with those guards. It’s like five guards coming at you full speed. It’s different."
Arizona has won three in a row and four of its last five after a 78-72 overtime loss at No. 12 Florida on Dec. 7. Their attack is balanced offensively with four players averaging in double figures scoring. Forward Solomon Hill leads the team in scoring and rebounding at 12.1 points and 7.9 rebounds per game. Perry is not far behind with 11.8 points and 7.6 rebounds.
The Wildcats also shoot 37.9 percent as a team on three-pointers with Kyle Fogg leading the way at 46.4 percent from beyond the arc. That's not good news for a Bruins team that is allowing opponents to shoot 39.3 percent on three-pointers this season, but Jones said the key to slowing down Arizona's attack will to play solid team defense.
"We all just have to step up and accept the challenge," Jones said. "I feel like I’ve seen some of the players on this team really play defense so it’s all effort. I feel like if everyone is motivated and really wants it, we can get it done."