One school boasts John Wooden. The other school boasts the guy who broke Wooden’s conference wins record.
In the summer of 1978 UCLA was three years removed from Wooden’s retirement. Arizona was the new kid on the block and five years away from hiring Lute Olson.
What followed were 33 years of the biggest and best basketball rivalry in the west. But which program was the best in the Pac-10?
The USC Trojans were easily the best football team in the conference. When you win the league twice as often as anyone else there’s no debate.
Baseball is close but I’m giving the nod to Stanford over ASU. The Cardinal had one fewer Pac-10 title but more conference wins and more College World Series appearances. Besides, the best team of the Pac-10 era can’t be 5th in the conference in national championships.
Basketball is different. The Arizona Wildcats and UCLA Bruins were both among the national elite and their levels of dominance were almost identical. How almost is almost?
From 1978-’79 through 2010-’11 Arizona won 732 men’s basketball games. UCLA won 731.
But a winner must be declared. That’s what We The People do. And so we break it down:
The Bruins won 410 Pac-10 games compared to 398 for the Cats. Advantage: UCLA
Arizona won 12 Pac-10 championships while UCLA won 10. Advantage: ARIZONA
(Since the Wildcats and Bruins never shared a conference title it means the pair won exactly 2/3 of the total championships. Disadvantage: Everyone Else)
The UA went to the NCAA tournament 26 times, UCLA received 25 bids, and both schools vacated two appearances. Advantage: ARIZONA
UCLA won 47 tournament games but vacated the five wins from 1980. All 44 of Arizona’s tourney wins are valid. Advantage: ARIZONA
Both programs reached the Sweet Sixteen 13 times during the Pac-10 years but that pesky 1980 run doesn’t count for UCLA. Advantage: ARIZONA
On the court UCLA led with five trips to the Final Four while the Cats only had four. In the court of NCAA law both parties are tied at four.
Comparing the sanctions, each team went one-and-done in the 1999 tournament and did so with an ineligible player, Jason Terry for Arizona and JaRon Rush for UCLA.
The UA’s big hit was vacating all 19 of Kevin O’Neill’s 2008 wins and his NCAA tournament loss due to the shenanigans at the end of Lute Olson’s tenure.
UCLA had to let go of its 1980 Final Four appearance due to the shenanigans at the end of Sam Gilbert’s tenure (and – wink, wink – only the end). Cheating Advantage: UCLA
Some say the best individual team of the Pac-10 era was Arizona’s 1988 squad but I say you can’t be the best all-time if you’re not even the best that year. UCLA’s 31-2 (later changed to 32-1 due to a Cal forfeit) 1995 team won both the Pac-10 and the national championship. Bonus points for producing one of the greatest plays in college basketball history. Advantage: UCLA
(However, if you look at Championships Won by Coaches Who Weren’t Fired, it’s Arizona 1, UCLA 0.)
To compare the best player from each side you first have to determine UCLA’s best Pac-10 player. Was it Ed O’Bannon or Don MacLean? MacLean is the conference’s all-time leading scorer but O’Bannon was Pac-10 Co-Player of the Year in 1995, he won two conference titles to MacLean’s one, and he has the national championship. Plus, O’Bannon is one of only two Pac-10 players to win the Wooden Award and MacLean isn’t even the most famous Don McLean. Advantage: Pie
The other Wooden Award winner? Arizona’s Sean Elliott.
Elliott won three Pac-10 championships, played in the Final Four, broke Lew Alcindor’s scoring record and is the only two-time Pac-10 Player of the Year (bad timing, David Greenwood). Advantage: Arizona
Add it all up, sprinkle in this writer’s bias, and the Arizona Wildcats were the best basketball program in the Pac-10 era. Start printing the t-shirts.
It was just like old times watching the Cats and Bruins compete for the 2011 conference championship. If both programs are on their way back to national prominence the Pac-12 has the true advantage.
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