LOS ANGELES —
Lute Olson carried boarding pass A48 as he waited to board Southwest Airlines flight 1737 to Los Angeles early Thursday morning. He was alert and analytical.
He talked about A-1.
“This is the best UCLA team since John Wooden,” he told me.
I didn’t know what to say.
“I think so.”
Who would know more than Olson, who coached Arizona against 13 UCLA teams ranked in the AP’s Top 10?
But there is one thing almost no one knows. As good as Arizona was during the Olson years — it went 4-0 against No. 1-ranked teams from 1987-2001 — the Wildcats were never able to beat a Top 10 UCLA team at Pauley Pavilion.
When ranked in the Top 10 in Los Angeles, the Bruins are 15-0 against Arizona (and 5-0 against Olson). It is the most imposing statistic in the UA’s long record book.
Average margin of victory: 15.6 points.
It is the one barrier that remains for the Arizona basketball empire. Beat the Bruins at their best, at their place, when no one expects it.
Can this truly be the best UCLA team since Wooden? That dates to 1975. That is a period that includes nine UCLA head coaches and 12 teams that finished in the AP Top 10.
“UCLA is the college version of the Golden State Warriors,” UA coach Sean Miller said Monday.
There is no higher compliment.
I contend that Arizona’s 2001 Final Four runner-up had more across-the-board talent than this UCLA team, and that Olson’s Dream Team of 1988, the 35-3 club of Steve Kerr and Sean Elliott, had the mystique that no post-Wooden Pac-12 team has matched. But after 20 games, the Run N’ Stun Bruins have put themselves in the conversation.
On Friday, before his team’s afternoon workout, Miller compared the Bruins to Duke’s 2001 national title team — Shane Battier, Elton Brand and the guys — the same team that beat the Wildcats in the championship game.
“I have never seen offensive personnel like this,” he said.
Sometimes the Bruins are a blur, much like the history of this dramatic rivalry.
The lead-up to Saturday’s game could be substituted with the anticipation of the ’94 UA-UCLA game at Pauley Pavilion.
The ’94 Bruins, undefeated and ranked No. 2, were averaging 93.3 points per game. This year’s UCLA team is averaging 93.4.
How’s that for a coincidence?
The ’94 Bruins led the nation with a 52.4 field goal percentage entering the game. This year’s UCLA club is shooting 53.6 percent, which also leads the nation.
The key word to Miller’s analysis of the 2017 Bruins offense: “Epic.”
Olson entered the ’94 game with a sense of reality. Even though the No. 9 Wildcats would ultimately end up in the Final Four, he prefaced the game by saying “no one in their right mind can expect us to beat UCLA at UCLA.”
The Bruins were ranked No. 1 in the old UPI poll, voted by the coaches, and UCLA coach Jim Harrick was so full of fight that he said something a coach rarely says publicly.
“We have five guys they have to contain. But they only have three guys we have to contain.”
Same then. Same now.
The Bruins won, 74-66, but it merely set the stage for a rematch in Tucson, won by the Wildcats 98-74. The Bruins unraveled, finishing just 21-7, getting swept by Jason Kidd’s Cal team and suffering the indignity of being eliminated in the first round of the NCAA tournament by Tulsa, 112-102.
As stunning as UCLA’s 1994 collapse was, it set the stage for something more grand: the 1995 national championship.
The difference between the ’94 Bruins and the ’17 Bruins is much more than a gulf of 23 years. The ’94 Bruins stayed in school; Ed O’Bannon , Tyus Edney, George Zidek and Charles O’Bannon all returned in ’95.
That doesn’t happen anymore.
This Bruins team is likely to be Won And Done, with emphasis on Won. If you blink you might miss it.
Lonzo Ball? T.J. Leaf?
Those fuzzy-faced basketball assassins, bound for the NBA, won’t be around long enough to sustain much of a fear in Tucson, or approach the career of Bruins guard Bryce Alford, who is 2-4 against Arizona.
Until this year, Bryce Alford was The Show against Arizona. Now it’s the Zo Show. Lonzo’s show.
“I have never seen a point guard play as dominantly as he has,” Miller said.
Arizona hasn’t played a Top 10 UCLA team since January 2009 at Pauley Pavilion. A basketball eternity has since passed. Sean Miller was then coaching Xavier to the Elite Eight. UCLA coach Steve Alford was piloting the New Mexico Lobos, a season that would end in a second-round NIT game.
Now all eyes are on the defense and discipline of Miller. He will try to stall the UCLA express, roaring down the tracks, no stops scheduled.