LAS VEGAS -- The old Pac-10 underwent a transformation three years ago with the addition of two schools. With Utah and Colorado on board, it rebranded itself with its own television network.
During that time, the Pac-12's two perennial basketball powers underwent their own periods of change. Sean Miller worked tirelessly to rebuild a program that was left without much of a foundation thanks to an ugly ending to Hall of Fame coach Lute Olson's career. UCLA, meanwhile, sputtered in the final years under Ben Howland.
But here we are in 2014, where the Wildcats and Bruins will square off in the Pac-12 Tournament Championship game on Saturday, beckoning back to the past where they were the undoubted superpowers of West Coast basketball.
It's the Pac-12 as it should be.
"We could spend weeks talking about traditions," said Bruins coach Steve Alford after UCLA dropped Stanford 84-59. "UCLA, we could spend years talking about tradition. This league was really good this year, very good. And you got the team that won it and the team that finished second. Now they're battling in March for a conference tournament championship."
Pundits shot heat at the league schedule-makers, who decided UCLA and Arizona meet just once this season.
The Wildcats went into Pauley Pavalion on Jan. 9 and won 79-75, and the Bruins showed they could score against one of the nation's best defensive squads. UCLA rebounded with Arizona, shot a respectable 40 percent -- UA's last two opponents haven't cracked 30 percent -- and even forced 17 turnovers on Miller's club.
So excuse Alford for not worrying about his offense.
"We've never had a problem getting shots," Alford said. "We play up-tempo. That's the way we've played all year long. I think what's really been a big key is we've got big defensive stops."
Arizona, meanwhile, will try to take a note from UCLA's transition game. In a 63-43 win against the Colorado Buffaloes on Friday, the difference in a game of consistently solid defense was the offense working hard to earn open looks.
"It was that combination that really broke the game open," Miller said. "Anytime we can get that many stops, it fueled our transition."
So the winner Saturday will be which team does what the other team does best ... the best.
Performer of the day: Aaron Gordon, Arizona
It's not easy to answer which Arizona player is most important to his team. Guard Nick Johnson is the defensive rock and leader. T.J. McConnell brings a steady presence to the point guard spot. Center Kaleb Tarczewski is a threat in the middle.
But freshman Aaron Gordon has the NBA Draft lottery hype because of what he did Friday. He finished with nine points, nine boards, and three each of assists, steals and blocks. His broken jumper may hurt a tad offensively, but the big man has the ability to turn defense into easy offense. And that's the key for the Wildcats to make up for their inability to stretch the floor.
It's a culture fit, too.
"He wants to play well, but it's always been about the win," UA coach Sean Miller said. "When you have someone with that mindset who is also really talented, it's hard to be selfish if you're his teammate."
"I think being on the court, it's definitely draining to an extent. I think us as Colorado, what we do, we try to have mental toughness. I think it slipped a little bit today." -- Colorado's Xavier Talton, on Arizona's big plays taking the Buffs out of the game
Seen and Heard
Don't try to tomahawk dunk on Aaron Gordon: Obviously advice, but not something that Colorado's Xavier Johnson was going to take seriously, apparently. Not a great idea.
Don't let Nick Johnson tomahawk dunk on you: The Arizona guard put on a dunking display on Friday, first throwing down a one-handed alley-oop from an Aaron Gordon pass, then going backdoor for a reverse alley-oop crush.
No. 1 Arizona 63, No. 5 Colorado 43: Nick Johnson led Arizona with 16 points and had two highlight-reel dunks, but Arizona also got all-around production from T.J. McConnell, Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to rip through the Buffs in the second half. The Wildcats shot 60 percent to CU's 23 percent in the second half to separate.
No. 2 UCLA Bruins 84, No. 6 Stanford Cardinal 59: A day after Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins saw his team put it all together, it all fell apart. The Cardinal got blitzed by UCLA and allowed the Bruins to shoot 65 percent for the game. Steve Alford's team went 3-for-13 from three-point range, a sign that all the scoring was all in the paint. Norman Powell led UCLA with 22 points.