Arizona came out of the gates with rust against the ASU Sun Devils, but after a quick shake-off, the Wildcats went back to their bread and butter that led to two double-digit wins coming before conference play.
That bread and butter was a stifling pressure defense, and that pressure remained on ASU until the Sun Devils folded. The Wildcats dropped the Sun Devils 68-51 in McKale Center on Saturday afternoon, and they moved to 1-0 in their first Pac-12 schedule in beating their rivals from the north.
It was a welcome sign considering that Arizona will need to make fools of the bottom-feeders in the league if they hope to build a decent seed in the NCAA tournament.
Holding ASU to 20 first-half points, the Wildcats built a 14-point lead going into the break thanks to forcing turnovers and keeping the Sun Devils out of any form of their offensive sets. By the end of the night, ASU committed 19 turnovers and were held to 36 percent shooting from the field.
Jesse Perry led the Arizona charge offensively with 16 points, and Nick Johnson and Solomon Hill also scored in double figures with 14 and 11 points, respectively. Hill had a double-double on the night, grabbing 10 rebounds, and freshman point guard Josiah Turner had one of his best games yet. He scored six points but ripped the Sun Devils with five steals.
With a 34-20 halftime lead, Arizona let ASU have it to begin the second half. Johnson and Perry each had fastbreak dunks as part of a 12-2 run coming out of the locker room, and the Wildcats would build a lead as large as 23 points.
With 10 minutes to play, ASU scrapped its way to cutting the UA lead to less than 20 points, but it was too late to make a substantial run at that point.
Taking it for what it is
The large margin of victory was definitely a welcome sign for the Wildcats, because let's be real -- ASU is not good. Though I'm biased in judgment after watching Lute Olson's athletically superior teams, this Arizona squad can play pretty good defense without having elite-level athletes like Andre Iguodala and Hassan Adams.
Much of the ball pressure that hurt ASU on Saturday was due to the Sun Devils deficiencies athletically. It also didn't help that they aren't the most skilled team.
Arizona took advantage of that. Though you wouldn't say Perry or Kyle Fogg are very good athletes, their presence is a huge difference on that side of the ball for Sean Miller's squad.
So while we won't say the Wildcats are one of the best defensive teams in the nation, it was a positive sign for playing tougher Pac-12 opponents in the future.
Josiah continues to find his fit
I was one to worry about where Turner was going to fit in. Between suspensions and looking lost in Miller's offense, Turner is starting to get it. While he's definitely a guy who could use a pick-and-roll buddy and doesn't look all that special when he's in the halfcourt, his on-ball defense has improved immensely, as has his off-ball defense.
Five steals is impressive -- it's essentially five offensive rebounds or five less turnovers per game. So for a point guard, especially playing under Miller, who values assist-to-turnover ratios, Saturday was a good sign for Turner.
Cause for concern
If we're looking at anything bad about this game, it's got to be the missing interior presence. Ruslan Pateev looked far and away better than fellow Eastern European 7-footer Kyryl Natyazhko, and UA freshman Angelo Chol recorded one rebound and a foul in seven minutes.
If Arizona hits a bit team like Florida or Ohio State in the NCAA tourney in March, they very well could be in big trouble. It's all about match-ups then.
It's not looking like Chol has progressed a great deal (not that he should be expected to) and Natyazhko appears to have even regressed from the end of last year.