The Pac-12 and Mountain West Conferences have their two best teams playing for their respective tournament championships today. Those teams—Arizona and UCLA in the Pac-12, New Mexico and San Diego State in the MW—are also rivals.
The Arizona-UCLA rivalry is steeped in much more tradition than the burgeoning New Mexico-San Diego State series, though the latter has been more consequential for its conference in recent years. San Diego State’s rise from cellar dweller to conference champion over the last decade challenged New Mexico’s place atop its corner of college basketball.
In that fashion, the development of the UNM-SDSU rivalry mirrors how Arizona and UCLA became nemeses in the 1980s. The Bruins were the longtime rulers of not only the Pac, not just the West Coast, but all of college basketball.
Lute Olson’s hire from Iowa in 1982 turned a Pac-10 punching bag into a conference champion by 1986. By 1988, Arizona was the No. 1 team in the nation and Tucson, Ariz., became a basketball town.
But the Wildcats were the nouveau riche neighbors moving in on the blue bloods’ territory. UCLA basketball was Andrew Carnegie; Arizona was a Powerball winner.
Still, Arizona’s rise fueled a rivalry. The Wildcats sealed the 1987-’88 Pac-10 championship with a win at Pauley Pavilion. In 1989, Sean Elliott surpassed Lew Alcindor to set the conference’s career scoring record—with a 34-point game. Against UCLA.
That Arizona was not a flash-in-the-pan turned the pairing into a full-fledged rivalry in the 1990s. UCLA’s Don MacLean broke Elliott’s conference scoring record, the same year the Bruins snapped the Wildcats’ 71-game home win streak.
The rivalry was as intense and as meaningful to the national landscape as any: Duke-North Carolina, Georgetown-Syracuse, take your pick. The programs won every conference championship in the 1990s but one. Each claimed a national championship that decade.
The fire fizzled in the 2000s, with each program hitting lulls at different points. UCLA sputtered in the waning years of Steve Lavin’s tenure as head coach while Arizona remained the conference’s forerunner. However after Ben Howland’s hire and UCLA’s reemergence, the Olson era came to an unceremonious conclusion. While the Bruins were going to Final Fours, Arizona was scrapping just to get into the tournament.
The fire is rekindled, and today’s Pac-12 Championship promises to throw gasoline on the flames. The Pac-12 lucked out with this matchup, as those tasked with building the schedules paired Arizona and UCLA just once in the regular season. They play just once again next season.
Pac-12 brass deserves derision for depriving the conference of a marquee rivalry, ready to again move to the forefront of the national scene. Each program is re-positioning as a national power: Arizona is ahead in the process, but UCLA can take a huge step in that direction with a win today.
The rivalry is back, and with it will come national attention the Pac-12 sorely needs.
While the Pac-12’s preeminent rivalry was dormant, New Mexico and San Diego State took up the West’s mantle.
Now, it’s disingenuous to label a series as a rivalry because of a few competitive games over the span of a season or two. However, the seeds for this pairing to be heated and meaningful for years to come are planted.
New Mexico’s basketball tradition is well-established. Albuquerque fills The Pit every game night, and has religiously for decades. The Lobos have played in 13 NCAA tournaments since 1991, far-and-away most among Mountain West members, and even handed the aforementioned 1987-’88 Arizona team one of its three losses.
There’s an established history at New Mexico San Diego State lacks, but what the Aztecs miss in lineage, they’ve made up for in exuberance.
The city of San Diego has embraced college basketball fully, turning Aztecs tickets into one of the toughest gets in town.
Fans camped out overnight outside Viejas Arena for last week’s de facto Mountain West regular season championship between these two teams. They did not fail to deliver, as San Diego State outlasted New Mexico in a back-and-forth contest that avenged one of the Aztecs’ three defeats all season.
One of the two has appeared in the Mountain West title game every year since 2009, and this will be the fifth straight season one leaves Las Vegas with the hardware. This rubber match of top 20-ranked opponents is only the second time they’ve met in the conference final, but the high stakes should solidify the rivalry’s worthiness of national attention.