The Arizona Wildcats and Arizona State Sun Devils always have each other’s dates circled on the schedule. It’s one of the best rivalries in all of college sports and a game that matters to both fanbases regardless of standing or ranking.
Saturday night represents something a little different though. The date has now been circled by everyone in the national media. It’s the two best teams in the Pac-12, both are ranked and one of them is the No. 3 team in the country. What’s even crazier — it’s not the Wildcats.
Arizona State has emerged as the hottest and most surprising team in the nation with a 12-0 start including marquee victories over Xavier and at Kansas. Bobby Hurley has his team killing opponents with a frenetic pace and tremendous outside shooting.
But the Wildcats are clearly no slouch. They may not be the team that people expected to contend for a national championship when the season began but since their nightmarish trip to the Bahamas, Arizona is winners of seven straight that includes two true road wins and a neutral floor victory over Texas A&M.
On Saturday night, the eyes of the college basketball world will be honed in on McKale Center and the two best in the west will meet with conference and state supremacy on the line. Here are three keys to the Wildcats getting the job done:
Arizona’s defense has slowly improved over the season, especially since the return of Rawle Alkins to the lineup. They’ve gone from slow help and lazy closeouts on three-pointers to forcing Connecticut to make tough shots in their last game. But they’re still far from perfect and perfect might be needed against ASU’s vaunted offense.
The Sun Devils are top 30 in the nation in both three-pointers made per game and three-point percentage. They make nearly 10 a game at a 40 percent clip.
Arizona State’s shooting is a serious problem that Arizona must contain, especially from their leader and best player, Tra Holder. He averages 21.3 points per game, knocks down nearly three 3s every time out and shoots 46 percent from long range.
The defense of Alkins along with the improved defensive effort from Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Allonzo Trier should make things difficult for ASU. But if the effort isn’t there and shots are falling from long range, Arizona will need to match them shot-for-shot or watch their rivalry steal one in McKale.
Strong 40 Minutes
The Wildcats have been prone to slow starts throughout the season. Recently, it took nearly 15 minutes for Arizona to lead by more than one possession against lowly North Dakota State. And then Connecticut stuck with the Wildcats for 30 minutes in McKale last week. Generally speaking, they’ve been finding another gear as the game prolongs and eventually running away from opponents.
That could be tough against Arizona State though. Not only are the Sun Devils undefeated, they’ve done it while being a second half team. ASU’s +11.8 second half scoring margin is second best in the nation, trailing only Michigan State. They average 48.8 points in the second half, best in the country and nearly three points better than second place.
Simply put, with the way ASU has played, Arizona can’t afford a slow start. The Wildcats can’t rely on flipping a switch later on in the game. They can’t find themselves in a hole going into the second half because even the smallest margin could be too much. It’s going to take 40 minutes of their best on Saturday night.
Feed the Beasts
Arizona State has seen some very good opponents and beaten them. With all due respect to those teams, they haven’t seen anyone as talented as Arizona. There will likely be times when the Wildcats have the three best players on the floor. Allonzo Trier’s efficiency will cause the Sun Devils defense fits. The penetration, spot-up shooting and active hands of Rawle Alkins can make ASU’s night miserable.
But where Arizona’s true advantage lies is in the middle. Dusan Ristic has played well of late and shows a post game that is tough to stop. He’s averaging 11 points and nine rebounds over his last three games.
And then there’s Deandre Ayton. ASU hasn’t seen anyone like Ayton because, well, there’s nobody like Ayton in college basketball. After his lackluster game against UConn last time out and with the nation watching this one closely, you can bet that Ayton is hungry to impress.
One area that Arizona State has struggled with is giving up offensive rebounds. They allow more than 10 per game and rank near the bottom of the country in that category. Ayton averages over 11 rebounds per game, Ristic hasn’t had less than eight in Arizona’s last three contests and Alkins can be an absolute animal on the offensive glass.
If the Wildcats let their big men work and snatch up second chance points, Arizona could be well on their way to handing their bitter rival their first loss of the season.