GAME: No. 14 UC-Santa Barbara (20-10) vs. No. 3 Arizona (22-9).
REGIONAL: West, First Round.
TIME: Thursday, 10:10 p.m. EST.
SITE: The Pit, Albuquerque, N.M.
This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Arizona.
The Wildcats have been surprising most of the college basketball world all season and hope to pull another shocker by returning to the Final Four.
That quest begins Thursday when third-seeded Arizona opens the NCAA tournament against 14th-seeded UC-Santa Barbara.
The Wildcats lost four starters from last year's NCAA runner-up team, which fell to Duke 82-72 in the final, and weren't even in the preseason Top 25.
Yet, Arizona upended seven ranked teams during the regular season before winning the Pac-10 tournament to earn its 18th straight bid. That trend is the longest active streak of NCAA tournament appearances.
"The amazing thing about it is that we've been able to stay consistent from year to year," coach Lute Olson said, "and certainly if anyone was going to say that string was about to be broken, I'm sure it would have been this year."
The Wildcats' season wasn't without its share of disappointments, but Arizona earned three victories in as many nights to win it fourth straight conference tournament, which was reinstated after 12 years.
Luke Walton had 23 points and eight assists playing all 40 minutes in Saturday's final to lift Arizona to an 81-71 win over Southern California.
While Walton was named tournament MVP, the Wildcats also got a big performance from freshman Salim Stoudamire, who scored a career-high 29 points. Rick Anderson added 12 points and nine rebounds against the Trojans, while Jason Gardner, the lone returning starter, had 11 points.
Though Arizona is one of the hottest teams entering the tournament, Santa Barbara is also enjoying a run of good fortune.
The Gauchos have a five-game win streak, including three victories in the Big West Conference tournament.
Santa Barbara's 60-56 victory over top-seeded Utah State in the final earned the program its first NCAA Tournament berth since the 1989-90 season.
However, the Gauchos now face one of their toughest opponents of the season.
"We are excited to play them," senior forward Mike Vukovich said. "We have a chip on our shoulders. We will need to take that type of attitude to play with Arizona."
The winner of the this contest plays the winner of the matchup between sixth-seeded Gonzaga and 11th-seeded Wyoming.
PROBABLE STARTERS: UC-Santa Barbara - F Mark Hull (14.6 ppr, 5.3 rpg), F Ndiaye (10.7 ppg, 7.7 rpg), G Fullove (14.2 ppg, 4.2 rpg), G Jones (9.9 ppg, 3.3 rpg), G Jacoby Atako (5.5 ppg, 4.1 apg). Arizona - F Walton(15.9 ppg, 7.2 rpg), F Anderson (12.5 ppg, 7.3 rpg), C Channing Frye (9.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg), G Stoudamire (13.1 ppg, 2.0 rpg), G Jason Gardner (20.5 ppg, 4.5 apg).
HOW THEY GOT HERE: UC-Santa Barbara - Automatic bid, Big West Conference champion. Arizona - Automatic bid, Pac-10 champion.
ALL-TIME TOURNAMENT RECORD: UC-Santa Barbara - 1-2, 2 years. Arizona - 32-19, 20 years.