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Notebook: On Arizona’s frontcourt, ASU’s offense, matchups, rivalry games & more

More notes before Saturday’s big game

Connecticut v Arizona Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

One of the biggest storylines entering Saturday’s rivalry game between the Arizona Wildcats and Arizona State Sun Devils is how UA’s oversized frontcourt will fare against ASU’s small-ball style of play and vice versa.

The Wildcats might have to play small and stagger the minutes of Deandre Ayton and Dusan Ristic so they aren’t forced to guard on the perimeter for long stretches, but it doesn’t sound like that will be Arizona’s plan — at least initially.

“We’ve played a number of teams in our 13 non-conference games that have a five-man that can shoot, maybe four perimeter players around a five-man as a true center. And we’ve worked our way through that,” head coach Sean Miller said.

“Dusan has earned the right to play the minutes he plays because he’s one of our teams best players. And he’s improved as much as anybody on the defensive end. I don’t know if anybody will vote for him on the all-conference defensive team, but so much of this is about can we see him become the best that he can become.”

Ristic and Ayton struggled together defensively in the Bahamas against smaller teams which was partially the cause of UA’s three-game losing streak, but Miller believes Ristic in particular has improved since then.

“He’s improved toward the latter half of our non-conference schedule and sometimes that light goes on at different points in your career, but whoever takes the court on Saturday has to be somebody who plays really hard and smart defensively and does they best they can,” Miller said. “Dusan will have his hands full, but I can’t really name anybody on our team that won’t have their hands full. They’re obviously a tremendous offensive team.”

While ASU’s trio of senior guards are its main source of scoring, ASU big man Romello White is no slouch, either. The 6-foot-8 freshman is averaging 14.9 points and 8.6 rebounds this season.

“In my mind, one of the most understated players on their team and a big concern for anybody that plays them is Romello White who is a big guy that has fantastic hands, rebounds, and gives them an inside presence that makes what they do even that much more difficult to defend,” Miller said.

“We have one big test on our hands Saturday and hopefully we’ll be up to the challenge and task.”

Here are more notes before Saturday’s game which is scheduled for 7 p.m. MST and will be broadcast on the Pac-12 Networks.

ASU has the No. 4 offense in college basketball, averaging 123.0 points per 100 possessions, and roughly one-third of its points come via the 3-point line.

The Sun Devils also play at a torrid pace, ranking 36th (of 351) in college basketball in average possession length.

ASU’s style of play and shot selection reminds Miller of the prolific offense UCLA had last year when it was led by Lonzo Ball and TJ Leaf.

The Bruins finished with the No. 2 offense in the country that season.

“They were a nightmare to defend,” Miller recalls. “They had some similarities (to ASU). Their pace was actually even faster than Arizona State. They had the balance of having that big guy or big guys that could score with terrific guard play, but UCLA was an unbelievable high-percentage scoring team. When they shot a 2, it was going in. When they shot a 3, it went in. They didn’t really get to the free-throw line a lot, but with ASU their ability to score from the foul line — get there and make the free throws they shoot — it puts a lot of pressure on your team. That’s the difference.”

A huge difference. ASU is No. 2 in the country in free throw rate — free throw attempts per field goal attempt — while UCLA was 342nd.

Arizona went 2-1 against the Bruins last year if that is any indication of how this year’s matchups against ASU will go, though UCLA was the only visiting team to win in McKale Center.

Of course, defense has been a major problem for the Wildcats all season, but they are improving. Arizona ranked in the 60s in KenPom’s defensive efficiency stat a couple weeks ago, but is now ranked 53rd heading into Saturday’s game.

Arizona’s biggest problems have been defending in transition and preventing dribble penetration — two things ASU’s stellar backcourt might be able to exploit.

“It’s a big problem, Miller said. “I don’t care who you have defensively no one’s really been able to keep them off the free throw line and stop them in transition. We’re the next team in line to give them a test. That’s something that our starting guards have to do a good job.”

Rawle Alkins has been credited with helping the UA improve on defense, providing energy, toughness, versatility, and a voice on the perimeter since his return on Dec. 9.

“I think we’re getting better on the defensive end,” Alkins said. “I’d say [Wednesday] was probably our most competitive practice of the year. Defensive-wise, I think everyone is starting to guard and take it personal.”

While Arizona has been less-than-impressive on defense this season, ASU has fared far worse, ranking 120th in defensive efficiency per KenPom.

Meanwhile the Wildcats are the No. 6 offensive team, so the Sun Devils should have problems stopping UA, too.

While Saturday’s rivalry game between Arizona and ASU is the most meaningful rendition in Miller’s tenure in Tucson (by far), it’s evidently nothing like the brutal Xavier-Cincinnati rivalry games he endured as Xavier’s head coach.

“Every program has their rivalry,” Miller said. “When I was at Xavier, the Xavier-Cincinnati crosstown shootout, you can’t compare that to anything ... There’s nothing like that game right there. That’s a bloodbath and anyone who’s coached in that game or played in that game understands that that’s just different. If you’re soft you want to transfer right after the game.

“The difference here is we’re in the same conference. We play twice a year and could play three times a year. There’s great meaning, but I feel like when we play UCLA there’s great meaning and every game that we play we’re trying to win. We respect the rivalry, but I don’t think it’s consuming.”

Still, Alkins expects Saturday’s game to be like any other rivalry game.

“Both Arizona schools playing against each other is always a big game, but being that they’re ranked so high, the expectations of the game are going to highly impacted,” he said.

“We’ll do our best and they’ll do their best.”

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Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire