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Arizona vs. ASU: Wildcats open Pac-12 play against rival Sun Devils

Arizona has lost two straight games in Tempe. Will that trend continue?

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The last time the Arizona Wildcats beat the Arizona State Sun Devils in Tempe, Mark Lyons, Solomon Hill, and Nick Johnson combined for 56 points and a dominant second half effort led to a comfortable 71-54 'Cats win.

But since then, Arizona has dropped two straight to its in-state rival in Tempe, and both were gruesome three-point losses. Wells Fargo Arena has not been friendly to the Wildcats lately, to say the least, but Arizona also hasn't lost its Pac-12 opener since the 2009-2010 season, so something will have to give here.

Who To Watch

Gabe York himself said that Tra Holder is ASU's best player, so we'll start there. Holder, a sophomore, had an uninspiring freshman season, but has taken the patented "freshman-to-sophomore leap" this year. The 6-1 point guard is averaging 14.5 points and 3.4 assists per game, and, despite his size, grabs about four rebounds per game. He's not a great shooter -- he's 14-44 (31.8%) from behind the arc this year -- but he does do a good job of using his quickness to penetrate the defense and either score for himself or create for others, though his assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.19 isn't exactly stellar.

Holder is the team's leading scorer, and Savon Goodman is second. The 6-6 forward averages 12.4 points and 7.9 rebounds per game. If you recall, Goodman was a major factor in ASU's upset over the Wildcats last year. He had 15 points and nine boards, and also had his way against Brandon Ashley and the rest of Arizona's interior defense. That being said, there's a chance he may not do that again this year. Not just because Arizona's defense may stop him this time, but also because, like Arizona's Elliott Pitts, Goodman has missed the last few games due to "personal reasons". The Wildcats are "under the impression" that he will play, but his status is still up in the air. (Pitts, by the way, will not be returning for this game. His return date is still unknown.)

The Sun Devils have two other players that average double figures in the scoring column -- Gerry Blakes and Willie Atwood.  Blakes had 14 points against Arizona last season while Atwood had limited playing time. Blakes is a 6-4 guard that is a decent shooter (32.8% from three), but his 37.7 field goal percentage is rather unimpressive. Atwood, on the other hand, is the team's best shooter. The 6-7 forward has hit 40% of his three-point attempts this season, and was 11-22 from behind the arc in December.

What To Watch

Kaleb Tarczewski has missed Arizona's last eight games due to a foot injury, but he is expected to return for this game. He is not expected to have the same type of starting role as usual, though.

"The role he'll have will be very small, and what we hope is that the small role will grow with continued health and as he continues to be part of what we do on a daily basis more often," Sean Miller said.

Dusan Ristic's play -- especially offensively -- in Tarczewski's absence was encouraging, but Zeus' ability to protect the paint is something the team has missed. Of course, he won't play as much as usual, but his return will give Arizona a boost, nonetheless.

The Kadeem Allen vs. Tra Holder matchup will be worth keeping an eye on too. Allen has made a case to be Arizona's best perimeter defender this season, and Holder will put that to the test. Allen does have a size and length advantage against the Sun Devil guard, and if he can prevent him from getting into the paint and breaking down Arizona's defense, Arizona State will struggle to find open looks.

Speaking of open looks, Arizona has to defend the three-point line better this time around. Last year in Tempe, players like Bo Barnes, Jonathan Gilling, and Gerry Blakes hit multiple threes against a lockdown Arizona defense. Barnes and Gilling are gone, but Blakes is still around, plus I mentioned Willie Atwood's ability to hit shots from the perimeter too. Threes not only add up on the scoreboard quickly, but they are also huge for the home team to get the crowd involved and into the game. When ASU started to bombard Arizona with threes last season, the team got rattled and the Sun Devils were able to pull away. This year's ASU team statistically doesn't shoot as well as last year's team, but all it may take is one hot shooting day for the Sun Devils to knock off the Wildcats. Arizona has to make it a priority to not let that happen, but sometimes there's just nothing you can do about it though (yeah, I'm looking at you, Sam Dekker).

Finally, Arizona needs to make its free throws. In the last two games in Tempe, the Wildcats are 24-44 (54.5%) from the charity stripe and they lost those games by a combined six points. The vaunted Curtain of Distraction will be in full force again to make things difficult, but this is going to be a close game and every point matters. Had the Wildcats shot better at the line in the past, we wouldn't be talking about snapping a losing streak, we'd be talking about extending a winning streak. Don't let the Curtain of Distraction win again!