Around the country, this game might not raise too many eyebrows or turn many heads. But here, in Arizona, for the hundreds of thousands of Arizona and Arizona State fans which occupy the state’s borders, this is the most anticipated basketball rivalry game of the millennium.
Arizona State, undefeated at 12-0, is riding a high like the program has never seen before — or at least I’ve never seen before. Their fans are giddy and confident, and have every reason to be with wins over currently ranked No. 6 Xavier and No. 11 Kansas.
What’s even more impressive is how they’ve won.
It’s sort of if the Phoenix Suns of the glory years came back for one final push. This ASU team is sixth nationally with 92 points per game, while eclipsing the century mark twice and having failed to break 80 also just two times.
Add to the fact that you probably only know one name — Tra Holder — that makes this all the more impressive.
But Holder is their motor.
The 6-foot-1 point guard is averaging career-highs across the board with 21 points, five rebounds, and nearly five assists per game. He’s also shooting 45 percent from deep which, you guessed it, is a career high.
Overall, ASU has five players who average double figures in scoring. However, and this could be the deciding factor in the outcome of the game, three of the five are basically six feet tall.
If you didn’t know before, ASU plays small but fast. I mean, you must play fast to average 90-plus points a game in college basketball. For comparison, Arizona State is 53rd in adjusted tempo while Arizona is 243, according to KenPom. (I should note that while they play at different paces, Arizona has the sixth best adjusted offense while ASU is fourth. In other words, there shouldn’t be a lack of scoring on Saturday night.)
Of the four guards/wing players the Sun Devils put out there, all are shooting above 38 percent from deep, meaning the game will likely be decided on how the Wildcats defend the arc.
Coach Sean Miller has always instituted a pack-line defense, while also ensuring his team knows how to close out and defend outside shots. Saturday’s game will be a microcosm of that defensive mentality.
ASU will in no means have an easy time scoring one-on-one inside against Deandre Ayton. He’s too talented and Bobby Hurley’s squad doesn’t have much of an interior presence as their tallest person is 6-foot-10.
This means it’s going to come down to how does ASU shoot and how will Arizona defend.
If they let the Sun Devil guards penetrate and kick to the corners for easy 3s, it could get ugly quick. But if Arizona can muck it up a little bit, play through Ayton and let their overwhelming talent and size wear ASU out, I can see this thing ending with Arizona an 8-14 point victor.
Down in Tucson, or at least across Wildcat Nation, the vibe is subdued excitement — I think…or maybe that’s just me.
It is sort of like this.
ASU being good at basketball is like your little brother dating a girl waaaay out of his league. You're happy for him, you really are. But this game is dangerous and his fragile heart isn't ready for what's to come. It won't end well my simple, naive brother— William Byrne-Quail (@WillBQ) December 27, 2017
Don’t get me wrong, we’re all very excited for the game. Maybe even a little nervous because ASU is this creature — a demogorgon even — and we really don’t know what to think. (Where’s Steve when you need him?!)
But most of all, I think UA fans are happy to finally have a rivalry game that will matter, but we’ve also been here for so long it’s like “Finally guys, what took you so long? Welcome to the party.”
Interstate teams are supposed to be fierce rivals.
Duke-UNC. UCLA-USC. Alabama-Auburn.
It’s nice that we, while the game is sadly shown on Pac-12 Networks, will get a little bit of this in college basketball.
It’s healthy. It’s good for both programs. And most importantly, it’s good for our NCAA resumes.
(ASU, if you need a crash course on the NCAA tournament, just look up to the rafters on Saturday. You’ll quickly learn.)
So, come Saturday, when all eyes within the state and thousands of graduates outside, are pinned on Tucson, remember this feeling. The feeling of a what will hopefully be a competitive game and the beginning of a state rivalry that will continue for years to come.
Because with how the Pac-12 is currently fairing, it’s the only thing to look forward to until March.
You can follow Alec on Twitter: @UofAlec