Even though the ZonaZoo won’t be its full-fledged self for Saturday’s rivalry game between Arizona and ASU — UA students will still be on winter break — Bobby Hurley and the Arizona State Sun Devils know what to expect when they venture into the unwelcoming McKale Center.
“It’s a great environment,” the ASU head coach said. “(Arizona has) great fans. They love their team and support their team and it’s as good a place to play as any in college basketball.”
And as daunting.
“I feel like we’re already down 10 when we play in Tucson,” said ASU senior guard Shannon Evans. “You gotta go in there with a mindset that you’re not going to get any calls. The fans are crazy in there. Everybody has U of A colors on, talking crazy to you, so it’s an environment that everybody is against you for no reason. So you gotta go out there and play your best game.”
ASU hasn’t won in Tucson since the 2009-10 season, and Arizona has only lost two home games since the 2013-14 campaign as a whole, but Saturday’s rivalry game is no ordinary matchup.
The third-ranked Sun Devils are in the Top 5 for the first time since 1981, winning 12 straight to start the 2017-18 season. The Wildcats, who were ranked No. 3 to start the season, have fallen to No. 17 in the polls after three early losses.
The last time Arizona and ASU were both ranked for a contest in McKale Center was 1995.
“They have talented players, they’ve won [seven] in a row and they are continuing to get better like you would hope, so it’s a big challenge, but this is this season,” Hurley said.
“What we’ve done speaks for itself and it gives me confidence as a coach to go to most places that we’re going to have to go because of what the guys have given me this year.”
Arizona head coach Sean Miller called ASU the “heavy favorite” to win the Pac-12, and even though winning in McKale Center is a troubling task for any team, the Sun Devils have already proven they are capable of winning in hostile environments.
ASU stunned then-No. 2 Kansas 95-85 in Allen Fieldhouse in early December.
“Winning there did give us a confidence that we won there we can probably win anywhere and things like that, but Arizona is different,” Evans acknowledged.
“I think Arizona is right there with Kansas. Every time we’re in (McKale Center) it’s crazy. I have Arizona State stuff on so it’s probably a little different, but Arizona is crazy to play and it’s a place I like playing too because I like that people hate you for no reason.”
No head coach in the Pac-12 draws more boos in McKale Center than Hurley, who made his first appearance in Tucson all the way back in 1991 when he made a late game-tying 3-pointer as Duke’s point guard in a hotly contested nailbiter.
Hurley was ejected when ASU ventured to Tucson during the 2015-16 season, his first at ASU, and last season Hurley fueled UA fans’ hatred when he said that if teams want to win in Arizona they “better go to [expletive] Tucson.”
“I’m a target,” Hurley said last year.
And he’s OK with that.
“I kinda hear things, but I don’t really hear a lot,” Hurley said. “When I’m in my zone and what I do I just focus on what’s happening between the lines because there’s a lot going on. So if I’m not locked into that and I’m focusing on what the fans are doing, I can’t do my job.”
Same goes for ASU’s players, Hurley said.
“All the players are different in how they prepare and how they’re going to get themselves ready, but there is a fine line between being ready to play and being too hyped to play,” he said. “You gotta know who you are and find the right space for that.”
ASU is the higher-ranked team entering Saturday’s contest, but Arizona will likely be favored on its homecourt.
One can debate who the better team is — we will have a clearer picture after the weekend — but Evans is just glad ASU is in the conversation.
“Basketball in Arizona, you know you gotta go through Tucson regardless,” he said.
“Playing them, they always win. Every once in a while we might get a win, an upset, things like that ... They’re not passing the torch to us, but we’re in the same room as them. When you talk about basketball in Arizona, you gotta say Arizona State now at least. University of Arizona might be this, this, and this because of their history, but right now we’re starting something here that’s never been done.”
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire