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No. 13 Arizona, UCLA renew rivalry

TUCSON, Ariz. -- For years it seemed the way to the championship of the Pac-12 Conference men's basketball title went through Arizona or UCLA. Or, was that UCLA and Arizona?

The reputation of the league -- or what people perceived of the conference -- was measured on how good the Wildcats and the Bruins were. That had been the case the last few years under Sean Miller and Steve Alford, just as it was back under Arizona's Lute Olson and UCLA's Jim Harrick, Steve Lavin and Ben Howland.

This season -- one of strange bounces and unusual defeats -- that's not the case with Arizona struggling a bit with what is considered a talented team and UCLA having had its off-the-court issues with players and basketball consistency, although UCLA has won four of five games

What's to say will happen this season with a little less than half the conference schedule left and Arizona (19-5, 9-2) clinging to a one-game lead over Southern California and a two-game lead over UCLA (16-7, 7-4).

"I think it's the depth that everyone should focus on (in the conference) and not just the historic rivalry (between Arizona and UCLA)," said Arizona coach Sean Miller about the two school's history. "Of course, if Arizona and UCLA (are) good that helps. But I think everybody has to pull their weight."

No. 13 Arizona and UCLA will have to pull their own weight on Thursday when the Bruins visit McKale Center in a nationally televised game.

Miller is 11-9 vs. the Bruins since arriving in 2009, but lost in the last meeting in Tucson. Arizona did, however, beat the Bruins in the rematch in the Pac-12 tournament.

"We know we have to go down there and have our 'A' game," Alford said.

This season, however, is much different than last year with each team younger -- UCLA more so than Arizona -- and both teams struggling on defense but excelling on offense. Arizona is No. 1 in the conference in scoring (85.0 ppg) while UCLA is No. 2 (89.2).

Still, it's the defense that has both coaches concerned -- especially if they have any chance of being among the elite teams nationally. It's an area Arizona has struggled with all season. And that's troubling to Miller.

"This is my 14th year as a head coach and this is maybe the worst defensive team," Miller said this week. "In the first year here at Arizona, you gotta recognize who we would have been then. It's hard to even evaluate what we did. So much was going on."

Since then, behind Miller, Arizona had turned into a defense-first team, making for a menacing team in the half court. This season, particularly on the perimeter, Arizona has been miserable. It ranks 11th in the conference for 3-point defense (36 percent) and seventh in field goal percentage (43 percent).

The numbers are so un-Arizona like that many have suggested Miller go to a zone, something he rarely -- if ever -- has done as a coach.

"We have to look at mixing it in," Miller said, "but there's gonna be a lot of wide open shots that go up if we play zone."

And UCLA would love that. It ranks fourth in the conference in 3-point shooting at 37.8 percent. Yet, more importantly UCLA coach Steve Alford said he likes how his team has played since losing three games ago.

"We are really clicking," he said. "Now we have to go on the road and when you do that it makes it that much more difficult. But we our offense is clicking and has a flow to it. We have a good confidence to what we are doing."

Again, it's the defense, Alford said, "where we gotta be, but we are making strides. That's been our focal point all week. We gotta keep growing, we gotta keep getting better."

Updated February 7, 2018

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