Among Pac-12 basketball rivals, Arizona may always be linked with UCLA. There were long rivalries with Stanford and Washington under Lute Olson, and recent ones to some degree with Oregon and Colorado.
Of course, things with ASU can always get heated, too.
But there may be no other team the Arizona Wildcats would prefer to play tonight than Cal.
At least that’s what history suggests.
The Bears beat up Sean Miller’s first UA team by 24 points in Berkeley, Calif., during the 2009-10 season, took the Elite-Eight-bound Wildcats to triple-overtime in 2010-11 before UA won and upended the then-seventh-ranked Wildcats at McKale Center last season.
Cal’s two losses at McKale in the Miller era were by an average of only three points, too.
Of course, there’s also that little matter of Feb. 1, 2014: The day the Wildcats’ school-record 21-0 streak ended, and when Brandon Ashley was lost for the season to a foot injury.
The Wildcats have a chance at payback tonight, if they are into such a thing.
“I don’t really believe that’s the case,” UA coach Sean Miller said. “We respect Cal a great deal and on that night they were better than we were, and Justin Cobbs hit a great shot to win it. The game could have gone either way, but Cal has a great combination of a great coach (Mike Montgomery) and really experienced players, and that shows in how well they’ve played on the road.”
The Wildcats are never one to single out any opponent, speaking respectfully about everybody, but guard Nick Johnson did offer this much:
“Obviously, they’re the first team to beat us this year, so there’s a little more excitement,” Johnson said. “I felt like the way they beat us, we weren’t full-handed. We didn’t have time to adjust to Brandon’s injury. Now it’s a little bit different. We can game plan and in the last week or so we’ve started to feel comfortable on offense.”
Especially last Saturday. With Gabe York starting on the wing for the second straight game, and Aaron Gordon putting on one of his best dunk-fests of the season in the second half, the Wildcats shot 60.3 percent from the field.
If they didn’t look terribly different than they did on Feb. 1, they certainly felt different.
“Losing Ashley in the middle of a game probably put them in a position where they had to play people in combinations they weren’t used to,” Montgomery said. “That hurt their depth inside. They made adjustments, going smaller and that seems to be working better. And they’re great at home with their crowd.”
Montgomery said Arizona is “awfully difficult to beat” if they have Gordon and Johnson have the kind of games they had at Colorado. Gordon put up a career-high 23 points while Johnson had 20 points on 8-for-15 shooting.
That was a pretty big contrast from the types of games Johnson has had against Cal recently. He had five assists against Cal at McKale Center last season but was 2-for-8 while Bears wings Allen Crabbe and Justin Cobbs combined for 51 points on 20-for-29 shooting.
Then, on Feb. 1, while trying to lead the Wildcats without Ashley, Johnson was 1-for-14 from the field.
“It was just an all-around tough game,” Johnson said. “Don’t get me wrong — they played great. They came in with a good game plan, they executed, guys made shots. So, I mean, we’re just looking forward to this.”