Arizona basketball: Longer road worth it

UA senior Solomon Hill, driving against Oregon State in January, is happy that he stayed in school. "There's so much more that goes into being a guy who can play in the NBA - your habits, how you present yourself," he says.


UCLA is coming to town tonight, and in some ways it might seem like old times.

The Arizona Wildcats are expecting a sellout of McKale Center. An ESPN crew will carry the game to a true nationwide audience. The Pac-10 race could be significantly impacted by what happens. And the Wildcats will even break out new uniforms for the occasion.

The difference now is the game is for second place, not first. It's on ESPN2, not ESPN. Neither team is nationally ranked. The uniforms in some ways represent a shedding of UA's messy transition era, the old jerseys having been worn since the tail end of Lute Olson's final season in 2006-07.

And the really big game in the West this week … already happened Wednesday, when No. 9 BYU beat No. 4 San Diego State 71-58 behind Jimmer Fredette's 43.

That's the way it goes these days in the Pac-10, which is trying to rebuild its basketball image at the same time Arizona is, with the help of a Fox Sports Net contract and a few games sprinkled on the powerful ESPN outlets.

"I do think if the Pac-10 were on our air more they'd be more visible," said ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, who will work the game. "But the reason I don't talk about the Pac-10 much is that it's not as good … and that's not based on my opinion. The numbers tell the story."

This could change, Bilas says, though not quickly. Arizona coach Sean Miller pulled in rising NBA prospect Derrick Williams and four other players in 2009, three valuable pieces in the 2010 recruiting class, and he has a top-10 class in 2011 coming in next season.

The key, Bilas said, will be to bring in even more talent.

"It's the same thing when coach (Lute) Olson got there - he had to string recruiting classes together," Bilas said. "And it was the same thing with (UCLA coach Ben) Howland. They're making steady improvement, and Sean has a great track record. He's a great recruiter with a great product to sell the kids.

"But you can't do what Arizona did, and snap your finger, and instantly it's OK."

Instead, what you get is tonight's game, a showdown for second place in the Pac-10 by two normally proud programs that are rebounding from tournament-less seasons.

One measure of progress, perhaps, is the Wildcats have won 13 straight home games, stretching back a year, after they lost five times at McKale last season.

"The best teams defend home court - that's what we've been trying to do this season, and so far so good," UA guard MoMo Jones said. "Coach (Miller) wants people to come in here, and basically be scared to play against us and wanting to get out of here as quick as they can. If we can protect our home court, and not let anybody sneak out with a win, it's going to be difficult later down the road for teams to come in here and beat us."

If they can defend their home court, the Wildcats also will have a shot at a Pac-10 title, since they also will host first-place Washington at McKale on Feb. 19.

But that's a long way off. First, the UA must survive the weekend against the L.A. schools, either of which Miller says can beat Arizona, then play road games at Stanford, California and ASU.

While Miller said this weekend is really no more important than any other, it does offer an opportunity to win without laborious travel, as the Wildcats had last weekend in Washington.

"Home conference games are crucial," Miller said. "You don't want to give one of those up. You want to take advantage of not traveling. One of the things I've learned in my brief time in the Pac-10 is being at home, staying put for back-to-back games, you have this six-, seven-day window where you're not traveling. Your players are in a routine.

"We've done a really good job to this point of taking care of every game we've played at McKale, because when you leave here, it's so hard to win on the road."

If there's anything better for the Wildcats than a home game, maybe it's one on national TV. While the UA has had six national Fox Sports Net telecasts this season, those games sometimes are not picked up by all of FSN's regional affiliates, and they also are not available in many hotels.

A New Yorker, Jones said it was a "good thing" the game is on ESPN2, though Miller says the exposure shouldn't really be necessary - at least for those programs that are traditional national powerhouses, the kind Miller says Arizona still is in many ways.

"I'd like to think the program doesn't really need that (coverage) to represent who we are," Miller said. "The last 20 years has taken care of 90 percent of that. Maybe the last 10 percent is to allow people who don't see us regularly to see we have an exciting team and that a lot of things people have come to recognize about Arizona is intact."



• What: UCLA at Arizona

• When: 7 p.m.


• Radio: 1290-AM, 107.5-FM, 990-AM (Spanish)