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Sean Miller: ASU is a ‘heavy favorite’ to win the Pac-12

The Arizona head coach didn’t hold back his praise for the UA’s in-state rival

NCAA Basketball: Pacific at Arizona State Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats are back from Christmas break and will have nearly a whole week to practice for Saturday’s home game against No. 3 ASU, but that still isn’t enough time to fully prepare for the Sun Devils’ high-powered offense.

“There’s not really answers in terms of playing against Arizona State,” UA head coach Sean Miller said Thursday at his weekly press conference. “They have one of those offenses that you don’t often times see.”

ASU’s offense, ranked No. 4 in the country per KenPom, has spurred the Sun Devils to an unprecedented 12-0 record heading into Pac-12 play, which includes wins over Xavier and Kansas in Kansas.

ASU is in the Top 5 for the first time since 1981, stunning the college basketball world as it displaces the traditional blue blood programs for national prominence.

UA guard Rawle Alkins admitted he didn’t expect ASU to roll into McKale as the third-ranked team in the nation, but who did?

“I don’t think anyone did,” Alkins said. “That’s why it’s a Pac-12 (Network) game and not an ESPN game.”

Miller wasn’t coy with his praise of the Sun Devils, declaring them the “heavy favorites” to win the Pac-12 — and even a threat to win the national championship.

“They have a lot of returning experience,” he said. “And in today’s college basketball game, when your best players are older it’s always a plus for your team and program. And in their case they really take the court with in essence three four-year starters. But to their coaching staff’s credit, each of those guys — (Shannon) Evans, (Kodi) Justice, (Tra) Holder — they’ve improved. They’re not the same players that they were a year or two ago. They’ve added to what they’ve done as players and they’re playing their very best at the end of their career.”

ASU is most feared for those senior guards, its pace, and its 3-point shooting, but the Sun Devils have added a new dimension to their offense this season — a lot of free throws.

ASU is second in the country in free throw rate (free throw attempts per field goal attempt).

“They have great firepower and to me the most revealing statistic they have going for them is their ability to score from the free throw line,” Miller said. “They’re the furthest thing from just this small team that shoots 3s. They really are efficient and they get to the foul line at a very high level, one of the best in the country.”

ASU’s historic success has come in a season in which the Wildcats have underperformed after starting the season ranked No. 3.

Arizona, now ranked No. 17, isn’t the highest-ranked basketball team in the state for the first time in nearly a decade, but Miller only views ASU’s success as a positive for the Pac-12.

“They deserve the credit,” he said. “Sometimes coaches have trouble giving that other coach and program credit like it reflects poorly on (your program). The better that they do, the more people start asking, ‘why aren’t you ranked higher?’ … They have earned the right to be the No. 3 team in the country. Bobby Hurley and his staff they’ve recruited well, they’ve coached well, they’ve been aggressive in their non-conference scheduling. It looks to me like they have the best crowds that I’ve seen since I’ve come here at Wells Fargo Arena. That’s great for them. We’re playing a game on Saturday with great meaning because of how good they are.”

Miller’s praise of UA’s in-state rival might seem like his attempt to shift the pressure onto ASU’s shoulders heading into Saturday’s game, but his team isn’t exactly devoid of it.

They never are, especially playing at home where they have only lost two games since the 2013-14 season.

“We’re always the heavy favorite in some ways, right?” Miller said. “We lost three games and it’s a big story. We’re 10-3. We know who we are. We’re supposed to win every game and that’s what all of us signed up for.

“In terms of giving Arizona State credit, they deserve all the credit in the world by what they’ve done and when the game ends, unlike college football we’re not going to take this break and wait until next fall. There’s a game about five days later that we both have to play and there’s 17 remaining conference games. I remember a year ago we played UCLA at home on senior night and we lost, and I don’t know if anything was positive was said about us. Yet we lost to, at that time, one of the best teams in college basketball. We responded by going and winning the Pac-12 tournament and winning a couple games in the NCAA Tournament.

“That was a healthy dose of learning. It was a growth moment. Maybe on the outside it didn’t feel that way, but within our own team it did. That’s the biggest part about Saturday’s game. Whoever loses this game can go on and be great and whoever wins this game, there’s no surefire reason to believe you’re going to have the opportunity to win the conference.

“From ASU’s perspective, if you’re able to come here and get a road win, certainly that would be a big moment, but they’re playing great. They’re a terrific team. If you’re able to go to Kansas and win, you’re real good.”

But good enough to be considered the “heavy” Pac-12 favorite? And good enough to win a national championship? ASU? Really?

“Yeah,” Miller affirmed. “They have all the parts. They really do. Experience. Guard play in college basketball is so important and they have depth at that position. Not just quality, but different players on different nights as guards that can step up and they play a style and a pace that’s very difficult to play against. I think they have a lot of answers for sure.”

Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire