UCLA will play today at McKale Center in Tucson, site of this year's Pacific 10 Conference tournament. And how well UCLA plays against Arizona, the nation's top-ranked team and the overwhelming favorite to win not only the conference title but also that end-of-the-season tournament, will go a long way toward telling whether UCLA has any hope of defending its Pac-10 titles.
Going into the game, UCLA Coach Walt Hazzard mentioned those titles: "We're still fighting to defend that honor."
It will take quite a fight.
Arizona, which defeated USC by 44 points Thursday night and is beating its Pac-10 opponents by an average of 29 points a game, has a 17-1 record, 7-0 in the conference.
Arizona is 8-0 at home this season.
UCLA (7-9 overall, 3-3 in the conference) is 1-4 on the road.
This could be ugly.
"I've seen Arizona on TV several times," Hazzard said. "I'm very impressed with the way they play. They have a group of players who have played together for a long time. They're focused and on a mission. They deserve to be No. 1."
Five starters have returned from the Arizona team that finished second to UCLA in the Pac-10 race last season, and the Wildcats also have a starter back from the season before. Steve Kerr, the team's floor leader, had to sit out last season after a serious knee injury in the '86 World Games required surgery and threatened to end his career. Kerr spent the season on the bench acting as something of an assistant coach.
"Kerr has always had a good grasp of things in their system," Hazzard said. "I thought a year ago he was the missing piece for them. . . . His leadership is a steadying influence."
Although Kerr is a key ingredient, Arizona Coach Lute Olson said before the season that he counts on Sean Elliott, his 6-foot 8-inch junior forward. Elliott, one of the conference's premier players, is averaging 19.2 points and 6.6 rebounds a game.
Elliott plays alongside another junior, 6-9 forward Anthony Cook. The Wildcat center, 6-7 Tom Tolbert, and 6-6 guard Craig McMillan are seniors.
"This is a veteran lineup that is not going to go flat at any point in the season," Hazzard said. "If they lose a game, it's because the ball bounced funny. That can happen."
Today's game, at 3 p.m., PST, will be televised by Channel 2 and broadcast by KMPC (710). . . . Arizona's only loss was at New Mexico. No one has to explain to the Bruins how that could have happened. The Bruins lost in The Pit, 77-66, in the second round of this season's Big Apple National Invitation Tournament. Arizona lost to New Mexico, 61-59. . . . UCLA leads the series with Arizona, 24-6, and won both games last season.