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Olson cuts to the quick

Times Staff Writer

There have been quotes from the Arizona basketball program this season that seemed particularly phrased to insult UCLA.

Earlier in the season sophomore forward Marcus Williams said, “We’re the standard. I don’t think UCLA is the standard.”

And last week, during a discussion with local media, Arizona Coach Lute Olson was quoted as saying, “I hope [USC] doesn’t change. I hope UCLA stays a half-court team. It gives us a better shot at recruiting kids. Kids like the wide-open style. I’d encourage [UCLA and USC] to stay half-court oriented.”

The fifth-ranked Bruins (22-3, 11-2) play 19th-ranked Arizona (17-8, 8-6) in a Pacific 10 Conference game today at the McKale Center. UCLA is in first place. Arizona is tied with Oregon for fifth. The Bruins are aiming for a Pac-10 title and a No. 1 regional seeding in the NCAA tournament. Arizona is not a lock for the NCAA tournament.

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And over the last couple of years the Wildcats are on a seven-game losing streak to UCLA and USC, after the Trojans won at McKale, 80-75, on Thursday night.

Ben Howland said he took no offense at Olson’s comments.

“Lute Olson is a Hall of Fame coach, one of the greatest coaches in the history of the game,” the UCLA coach said. “I don’t know how the comment was said, but Lute is a great coach, a great person, he does it with class. I have nothing but great respect for him.”

Olson said USC Coach Tim Floyd “told me he had read I said USC walks the ball up the court and that’s a complete lie.”

But Olson didn’t back off the idea that he tells recruits that Arizona is the place for players who like to go fast.

“If a kid really wants to play an up-tempo style,” Olson said, “we have a chance at that.”

Maybe it’s not a coincidence, then, that Olson spoke most enthusiastically of UCLA’s quickest player, point guard Darren Collison, who grew up rooting for Arizona.

“Collison is a problem for us, handling him defensively,” Olson said. “He’s such a great penetrator and yet he shoots over 30% from three. He’s as good as there is in the country at that position.”

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Howland said forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute would be wide-eyed against Arizona. That’s a good thing. Mbah a Moute’s right eye was almost swollen shut after Thursday’s game.

“We checked the cornea and it’s a little painful, but that heals quicker than a cornea scratch,” Howland said.

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Howland and Olson spoke of the challenges of playing tough Thursday night games and facing an early tipoff on Saturday. Howland said the Bruins did a light walk-through with some film study and free-throw practice Friday.

“This league is hard that way,” Howland said. “It’s the only league in the country where you play Thursday night then Saturday morning. But it prepares you well for NCAA tournament time.”

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If anyone doubts the importance of having one of the four No. 1 NCAA tournament seedings, Olson has an answer.

“If you look at this over the last couple of years,” he said, “we end up playing Illinois, a No. 1 seed, in Chicago. How important was that? Important. Last year we played No. 1 seed Villanova in Philadelphia.”

Arizona lost to Illinois, 90-89, in a regional final and to Villanova, 82-78, in the second round.

Olson also said that UCLA deserves a No. 1 seeding.

“You have to wash out that West Virginia loss, without Collison,” he said. “And the other thing, it’s always difficult ... playing a nonconference team in the second half of the conference season. That was a tough thing for them to do.”

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TODAY

at Arizona, 10 a.m., Channel 2

Site -- McKale Center, Tucson.

Radio -- 570.

Records -- UCLA 22-3, 11-2 Pacific 10 Conference, Arizona 17-8, 8-6.

Update -- The fifth-ranked Bruins are on a four-game winning streak over the 19th-ranked Wildcats. This is Arizona’s final home game, and seniors Mustafa Shakur and Ivan Radenovic will be honored. The Wildcats are 1-5 this season in games decided by five points or fewer.

diane.pucin@latimes.com


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