On Saturday, the eyes of the college basketball world will be on Tucson as ESPN’s College GameDay comes to town when the third-ranked Arizona Wildcats host the fourth-ranked UCLA Bruins.
It’s the kind of late-season matchup fans yearn for, with plenty on the line as two of the Pac-12’s best teams square off. For the Wildcats, a victory would put them one win away from claiming their third conference title in four seasons, whereas for the Bruins a win would avenge an earlier home loss to the Wildcats as well as serve notice that they are also a force to be reckoned with.
For fans in the Old Pueblo, seeing a top-five team is not particularly noteworthy, as the Wildcats have often been ranked among college basketball’s elite. It is, however, a rare instance of an opponent coming in with that kind of ranking, and it is with that in mind we’ve decided to look back at the last five times an opponent entered the McKale Center with a top-five ranking.
Dec. 15, 2012 – No. 5 Florida
A season after missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time in decades, the Arizona Wildcats entered with moderate expectations that were raised after a 7-0 start to the season. None of the previous opponents were on the same level as Florida, however, as the Gators entered the matchup 7-0 and ranked fifth in the nation. Arizona was
ranked eighth, and what transpired was an entertaining battle that appeared to be heading toward a Florida win when the Gators were up 11 in the second half and then six with just 56 seconds remaining. But the Wildcats, perhaps (but not likely) inspired by their football team’s incredible comeback in the New Mexico Bowl earlier that day, rallied with timely defense, some free throws and big shots from Solomon Hill to get within one. Florida’s Kenny Boynton missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 21 seconds left, Arizona corralled the rebound and got the ball to graduate transfer guard Mark Lyons. Lyons drove the ball to the hoop and got a shot up over the Gators’ Patric Young, banking it in with just seconds remaining. The visitors scrambled to get a final shot away — which missed — and the Wildcats came up with a big 65-64 win.
March 2, 2008 – No. 4 UCLA
The Wildcats were not exactly in a good spot in 2008, when Kevin O’Neill ascended to the head coach role after Lute Olson took a leave of absence. It’s not that Arizona was without talent, as future NBA lottery picks Jerryd Bayless and Jordan Hill were joined by Chase Budinger, who also went on to have a career in The League, but just — something was not right for a team that was 17-11 when it hosted UCLA. On the other hand, the Bruins were rolling, entering with a 25-3 record and ranked fourth in the nation. Led by Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook and Darren Collison, UCLA took an early lead and was up just two at halftime. The second half was tightly-contested, with the lead changing hands multiple times until the Bruins took control with about 10 minutes remaining after Hill picked up his fourth foul. Love started to dominate but Arizona continued to battle, and with seven seconds left and the Wildcats down three, Bayless was fouled. He made the first free throw but missed the second, only to have the rebound go out of bounds off the Bruins. Bayless got one more shot off, but his three-point attempt missed and UCLA escaped with a 68-66 win.
Feb. 17, 2007 – No. 5 UCLA
The Bruins were 22-3 and ranked fifth in the nation. The Wildcats were 17-8 and ranked 19th. The game between the two was highly anticipated, but provided roughly 20 minutes of intrigue as the Wildcats rallied from an early deficit to be down just one at the intermission. The second half belonged to the Bruins, however. A Mustafa Shakur jumper pulled Arizona to within 47-44, but the three-point margin would be as close as the Wildcats would get the rest of the way. UCLA was led by Darren Collison, Aaron Afflalo and Josh Shipp, who helped the Bruins pulled away from an Arizona squad that was paced by Shakur, Chase Budinger and Marcus Williams. The 81-66 defeat was the second-worst home loss in Lute Olson’s Arizona tenure.
Jan. 27, 2007 – No. 4 North Carolina
The Wildcats took a break from their Pac-12 schedule to host one of the best teams in the nation, as the No. 4 North Carolina Tar Heels came to town. Arizona, ranked 17th at the time, proved to be no match for their ACC foe. The 92-64 defeat was Lute Olson’s worst in the Old Pueblo, and it was never remotely close. Arizona was down just one with 10 minutes left in the first half, but from there the Tar Heels went on a 22-5 run to take an 18-point advantage into the break. Things got no better for the Wildcats over the final 20 minutes, who surrendered 49 second-half points in the defeat. Led by Ty Lawson’s 18, six UNC players scored in double figures,while for Arizona, Chase Budinger scored 16 while Mustafa Shakur chipped in 15.
Jan. 11, 2004 – No. 4 Stanford
The game was supposed to be better than it was, with No. 3 Arizona (10-1) hosting No. 4 Stanford (12-0). Unfortunately the Cardinal did not oblige, taking a 13-point lead into halftime before ultimately winning 82-72. Josh Childress was one of five Stanford players to score in double digits, with his 19 leading the way against a Wildcats team that was down 20 with just more than four minutes remaining. Mustafa Shakur scored 20 for the Wildcats, who also received 15 points from Andre Igoudala and 12 from Channing Frye, but Salim Stoudamire made just 4-of-14 shots and 1-of-8 from 3-point range in the loss.