So it begins. The Arizona Wildcats open their Pac-12 Conference schedule against the Arizona State Sun Devils in Tucson this afternoon, but it goes without saying that this marks something bigger than one game against one rival.
It's the Wildcats' first game on a mission to defend the Pac-10 Championship they won a year ago. Even more importantly, this game against the Sun Devils (4-8) will be an opportunity to flex a muscle that reaches beyond Tucson, Tempe or Southern California.
The non-conference run was telling that the Wildcats are the middle-child of the NCAA. Solid all-around but not yet big or strong enough to upset higher-seeded NCAA tournament-projected teams.
But in the Pac-12, the Wildcats are that big brother.
To make a deep NCAA tournament run this season, Arizona (9-4) must first make a point in league play. The point that must be made? They're going to crush every crushable opponent.
ASU is just that.
High expectations have been squashed by nearly every team in the Pac-12, even to some degree by Arizona. The Wildcats don't have a signature victory this season and lost to the West Coast's Pac-12 outsiders in San Diego State and Gonzaga.
Meanwhile, every other team in the league has struggled. A hyped Washington Huskies team is still under the microscope after being blown out by South Dakota State a few weeks ago. Washington State couldn't handle UC Riverside one day in late November. The California Golden Bears, picked by some to win the Pac-12, got walloped by a very good Mizzou squad 92-53 and a solid UNLV team by a score of 85-68. UCLA got out of the gates with losses to Loyola Marymount and Middle Tennessee.
ASU, USC and Utah? Let's not even talk about it.
About the only team that hasn't embarrassed itself is Stanford.
All that said, there won't be much credence placed upon wins in the Pac-12, so the Wildcats have to make some noise by margin of victory.
That can begin against the Sun Devils, who hit conference play on a three-game losing streak. They lost on a game-winner to NAU, the same way against Southern Mississippi and by three points to Fresno State. Without highly-regarded freshman guard Jahii Carson, who is out for the rest of the year due to academic issues, there's skin and bone on the Sun Devils' roster.
Junior wing Trent Lockett, last season's leading scorer, has apparently hit a ceiling in his development, although playing with a lack of surrounding talent hasn't helped either. The 6-foot-4 forward averaged 13.8 points per game and grabs nearly seven boards to boot.
The rise of sophomore Keala King has helped coach Herb Sendek survive without Carson, however. More the size of a shooting guard at 6-foot-4, 201 pounds, King slid over to the point guard slot and averaged 3.3 assists as a talented ball-handler and penetrator -- think James Harden without a jumper.
Otherwise, it's slim pickin's for the Sun Devils.
Arizona should have no trouble coming out with a win, especially at home, and that aforementioned margin of victory will be a sign of how rusty the Wildcats are coming off a longish break.
It might also hint to how mentally prepared Arizona is heading into a conference that's weak enough for these middle-child Wildcats to show the rest of the NCAA they'll be ready for a fight with some top-tier teams come March.