UCLA guard Malcolm Lee, left, and center Reeves Nelson celebrate during… (Richard Hartog / Associated…)
A year ago, UCLA and Arizona generated only March sadness. The Bruins missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since Coach Ben Howland's first season in 2003-04 and the Wildcats were out for the first time since the middle of the Reagan administration, in 1984.
Now both teams are firmly in the postseason picture. Arizona (16-4 overall, 5-2 in Pacific 10 Conference play) has already matched last season's victory total. UCLA (13-6, 5-2) could do the same with a triumph over the Wildcats on Thursday night at the McKale Center in Tucson.
The Bruins moved into several projected NCAA tournament brackets this week in the wake of a four-game winning streak, and their Ratings Percentage Index figure of 48 is a big improvement over their triple-digit readout from earlier in the season.
A victory over Arizona (RPI: 25) would give UCLA sole possession of second place in the Pac-10 and bolster its postseason resume.
"This is a huge game," Howland said. "It's a great opportunity for us to go in and fight for a potential victory against a very good team."
Arizona is unveiling new uniforms to generate additional buzz for a game televised nationally by ESPN2.
The Wildcats are 11-0 at home, but UCLA players have said they enjoy playing in us-against-the-world environments. It certainly might seem as if everything is stacked against the Bruins.
UCLA could be missing sophomore forward Reeves Nelson, its leading scorer and rebounder who was limited in practice Wednesday because of a lingering ankle injury. His availability will be a game-time decision
There was better news regarding freshman center Joshua Smith (head and neck), who was cleared to play after completing a full practice.
Still, the absence of Nelson would severely hinder UCLA's defensive plan against Arizona forward Derrick Williams, who has double-doubles in four of his last five games and is averaging 23 points and 12.2 rebounds over that span.
"It's a team effort," Bruins sophomore forward Tyler Honeycutt said of stopping the 6-foot-8 sophomore from La Mirada. "It's not only the guy guarding him but from every position, one through five, helping out…. "
Moving on up
At this time last year, Lazeric Jones and Jesse Perry were helping Logan (Ill.) College defeat Southeastern Illinois in a Great Rivers Athletic Conference game.
The stakes are a little bigger now, as Jones and UCLA take on Perry and Arizona.
"It will be good to get that win so I can text him later about it," Jones deadpanned.