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Arizona majoring in drama

Times Staff Writer

TUCSON -- UCLA has won six straight games against Arizona and has taken over as the muscle atop the Pacific 10 Conference after its back-to-back titles and consecutive Final Four appearances.

Formerly the Pac-10 kingpins, the Wildcats (17-11, 7-8) now are facing the chance they might finish below .500 in the league for the first time since the 1983-84 season and possibly miss the NCAA tournament for the first time in 24 years.

Arizona this season has been without its legendary coach, Lute Olson, who took a leave of absence for reasons that have remained private. Three of the Wildcats’ top seven players have missed a combined 22 games because of injury, including point guard Nic Wise, who is out at least until the Pac-10 tournament after having knee surgery last month.

The almost weekly drama caused interim Coach Kevin O’Neill to say Saturday, “This is been the toughest year of my coaching career. I feel confident in saying that.”

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And here comes UCLA, ranked No. 4, 25-3 overall and leading the conference at 13-2.

O’Neill calls the Bruins “perhaps the toughest defensive team in the country.” He lists UCLA’s 82-60 win at Pauley Pavilion a month ago as one of three losses this year in which his team lost its fight.

In the Bruins’ six straight wins over Arizona, they are averaging just under 80 points and have won by an average of nearly 13 points a game. “For some reason,” UCLA junior Josh Shipp said, “we play well against Arizona. I think we really get up for them.”

The Bruins will encounter a raucous atmosphere in Tucson. It is Arizona’s final home game and the Wildcats’ senior class of Bret Brielmaier, Daniel Dillon, Jawann McClellan, Mohamed Tangara and Kirk Walters will be honored. O’Neill said Olson may be on hand to congratulate the seniors who have gone 49-13 at McKale Center.

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O’Neill says he understands the streak of 23 straight NCAA appearances, the longest ongoing streak, is at risk. UCLA Coach Ben Howland continues to insist the Pac-10 will get six NCAA bids, though he said the league “would be hard-pressed to get in a team with less than a 9-9 conference record.”

Howland also called the 23 straight bids “a phenomenal achievement and it’s a testament to Lute Olson and what a great program he has built. To have that kind of staying power over two decades is incredible. It’s very difficult.”

Difficult is the word O’Neill used to describe every step he has taken at Arizona. He arrived last summer with the plan to be Olson’s top assistant and the defensive expert who wanted to toughen up players in a program that had begun to earn a reputation as soft. When Olson stepped away in November, O’Neill had much more to worry about than defensive improvements.

“I feel like me and this team have had our backs to the wall,” O’Neill said. “It wouldn’t be wrong to say I’ve felt a little desperate every game. I hope all our guys have that feeling against UCLA because they should have it.”

Eight freshmen rank among the Division I top 100 in scoring but UCLA’s Kevin Love is the only freshman to have scored in double figures in every game this year. Only two -- Love and Kansas State’s Michael Beasley -- are averaging double-doubles. Love is averaging 17.0 points and 11.0 rebounds, Beasley 26.2 and 12.6.

TODAY

at Arizona, 1 p.m., Channel 2

Site -- McKale Center, Tucson.

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Radio -- 1150.

Records -- UCLA 25-3, 13-2, Arizona 17-11, 7-8.

Update -- Arizona missed 10 of its first 12 shots in the 22-point loss to UCLA at Pauley Pavilion. Offensively Arizona relies on two scorers -- guard Jerryd Bayless and forward Chase Budinger, who combine to average 46 points. In its 70-58 loss to USC on Thursday the pair scored only 15.

diane.pucin@latimes.com


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