UCLA has been the class of the Pac-10 for over 60 years, earning more league titles than any other school in the conference.
Arizona State does not have the same illustrious history, but is hoping this can be the year it wins its first Pac-10 championship.
In a matchup of two of the favorites to contend for the Pac-10 title, the ninth-ranked Bruins look to open conference play with five straight victories for the first time in five years on Saturday when they host the 16th-ranked Sun Devils.
After winning its third straight and 30th Pac-10 title last season, UCLA (14-2, 4-0) was the preseason consensus to finish first in the league in 2008-09. The Bruins opened their conference schedule with three straight road wins before defeating Arizona 83-60 at home on Thursday to start 4-0 in league play for the second consecutive year.
“They are the cream of the crop of the Pac-10 Conference,” Wildcats interim coach Russ Pennell said of UCLA.
The Bruins, who have not won their first five conference games since 2003-04, shot 59.6 percent from the field against Arizona. Nikola Dragovic led five players in double figures with a career-high 15 points.
“Our preparation was good and we didn’t overlook Arizona, even though we have a big game on Saturday,” said senior guard Darren Collison, who finished with 12 points. “This is a good opportunity to protect home court and widen the margin in the Pac-10. We still have to go out and prove it.”
While it’s not shocking UCLA has been picked to make a run for another Pac-10 title, the Sun Devils’ high expectations are a bit of a surprise.
Arizona State (14-3, 3-2), just two seasons removed from a last-place finish, was picked to finish second in the league. The Sun Devils haven’t finished in second place in the conference since 1980-81 - their third season in the Pac-10.
Arizona State has not had much luck against the Bruins lately, though, losing eight straight meetings since a 74-62 overtime win on Feb. 12, 2004.
The Bruins outscored the Sun Devils by an average of 27.0 points in their two meetings last season, with Collison scoring 15.5 in those games.
UCLA, which is 18-1 at Pauley Pavilion against conference opponents since 2006-07, has won five straight home games over the Sun Devils by an average of 15.8 points.
Arizona State’s struggles in Los Angeles aren’t confined to playing at Pauley Pavilion.
The Sun Devils lost at USC 61-49 on Thursday, their eighth straight defeat in Los Angeles dating to 2006 - three at USC, two at UCLA and three more in the Pac-10 tournament at Staples Center.
Arizona State entered Thursday’s game shooting 51.9 percent from the field - just a tenth of a point below national leader Utah State - but made a season-low 34.1 percent of its shots.
James Harden, the Pac-10’s leading scorer (21.9), was most to blame for Arizona State’s poor shooting performance. Harden missed all eight of his field goal attempts and went 4-of-7 from the foul line to finish with a career-low four points.
“I just wasn’t being aggressive from the get-go like I usually am,” Harden said. “They played great team defense.”
Jeff Pendergraph finished with 13 points on Thursday. He’s averaging just 10.0 points in his last three conference games after scoring 47 in the first two.
The 6-foot-9 senior struggled against UCLA last season, averaging 5.5 points on 38.5 percent shooting in the two games. Harden wasn’t much better, as he averaged 10.0 points on 37.5 percent shooting.