Washington-Arizona basketball rivalry is Pac-12's best
In Pac-12 Conference basketball, there’s one game that’s better than the rest.
It’s more hard-fought. There’s more riding on the outcome. It’s more competitive. The players and fans care more. It has postseason implications and the series has had a slew of iconic moments in just the last 366 days.
It’s Arizona against Washington — a game that has also become the best rivalry in the Pac-12.
Gone are the days when Lute Olson would take Arizona to Pauley Pavilion for a showdown between top-ranked teams. James Harden isn’t walking into Wells Fargo Arena and giving ASU fans hope that the Sun Devils might actually be relevant in the college basketball world someday. Maples Pavilion is now filled with as many Arizona fans as Stanford fans when the once-rivals meet in Palo Alto, Calif.
The Honda Center was literally half full when UCLA hosted Arizona on Jan. 5. Even Los Angeles fans are capable of filling seats for a game they consider a rivalry.
But McKale Center is at its finest when the Huskies roll into Tucson — especially when the game is on a national stage, as it has been the past two seasons. Hec Edmundson Pavilion has been as hostile toward Arizona as any venue in America.
Three of the last four games between the Huskies and Wildcats have come down to the game’s last play, each producing a moment that won’t leave the minds of fans of either team in the near future.
There’s Derrick Williams’ block. Then Isaiah Thomas’ “cold-blooded” 3-pointer, as Gus Johnson described it. There’s Solomon Hill shooting 90 percent from the field, scoring 28 points and hitting a game tying 3-pointer with 6.9 seconds to play.
Then there’s Tony Wroten’s game winning block of Josiah Turner. And Wroten’s posterization of freshman forward Angelo Chol.
But raucous crowds and iconic moments alone don’t make a rivalry. The games are entertaining. They pit the conference’s two most athletic teams against each other. Washington plays its best basketball of the season against Arizona year after year.
“I think when we play them, it’s like playing ourselves in a way,” Washington guard Terrence Ross said on Saturday. “It’s always a fun matchup.”
The two teams play an up-and-down style that is, for lack of a better word, fun to watch.
And then there’s the final — and most important — ingredient to creating a long-lasting rivalry: The games actually mean something.
Each of the last five matchups has played a role in deciding which team sits atop the conference standings. Washington might be sneaking its way back onto the good side of the NCAA Tournament bubble — thanks in large part to a pair of wins over a solid Arizona team.
Last year’s Arizona win in McKale Center helped vault the Wildcats to a regular-season Pacific 10 Conference championship. Thomas’ heroics gave the Huskies the tournament championship and the auto-bid to the NCAA Tournament that comes with it.
The Huskies sit in a tie for first place after Saturday’s win. Had the Wildcats won, they would be a game back of the conference’s top spot with three games left to play.
Things between Arizona and Washington don’t stop on the court. Arizona head coach Sean Miller and UW head coach Lorenzo Romar are battling for recruits. Chol’s college decision came down to Arizona or Washington.
No other conference matchup has the unmatchable combination of atmosphere, skill, highlight plays and meaningful games. The days of UCLA versus Arizona being the conference’s marquee game are over.
Washington and Arizona have taken the reins, and neither looks willing to let this matchup slide into the depths of irrelevance like the Pac-12’s other fleeting rivalries.
— Alex Williams is the sports editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter via @WildcatHoops.