Before the 17th-ranked Arizona Wildcats and third-ranked Arizona State Sun Devils tip off Saturday in what is regarded as the most anticipated game in this series since, well, ever, we wanted to learn more about ASU and its surging basketball program, so we asked our friends at House of Sparky, the ASU SB Nation site, for some insight.
Here is our Q&A with House of Sparky’s co-managing editor Max Madden. (We answered their questions about Arizona basketball here).
Ryan Kelapire: How have Shannon Evans, Tra Holder, and Kodi Justice improved since last season, and why have they improved so much? Is it just experience?
Max Madden: Both Holder and Evans have greatly benefitted from increased scoring options in Romello White, De’Quon Lake and Remy Martin. At times last season, each of them had to do it all themselves and defenses were able to lock in. Having more offensive weapons has forced teams to respect ASU's post game, then the guards go and score a ton of points while they're looking the other way.
RK: ASU's shooting has been good all throughout the Hurley era, but what makes this offense as elite as it's been?
MM: They've taken an extremely calculated approach to spacing on the offensive end that has opened up a ton of good looks for the backcourt. It's pretty interesting stuff actually, the whole offense and plays are drawn up in an attempt to increase lateral movement and create shots at very specific locations for the players. Fabian Ardaya of SunDevilSource.com broke it all down here, definitely worth a read.
RK: So much has been made about how Arizona will defend ASU's guards, but how can the Sun Devils slow down UA's oversized frontcourt of Dusan Ristic and Deandre Ayton?
MM: ASU has decent size outside of its guards. Mickey Mitchell and Kimani Lawrence stand around 6 foot 7 while White is about 6 foot 8 and Lake is 6 foot 10. I'd imagine they'll try to press PJC and Trier up top in the half court press and limit their ability to get it down low. If the Cats can get it dow there, the Devils will have major issues.
RK: ASU's defense has been pretty poor this season, so what are its weaknesses on that end of the floor?
MM: When your entire program is built around the "Guard U" mantra, you'd imagine that there would be a heavy emphasis on creating turnovers -- especially when you just don't have great size around the perimeter. There hasn't been. Lake and White are underrated post defenders, but not good enough to carry the team. ASU is going to have to force UA to make mistakes, something it hasn't done since Vegas.
RK: How has ASU's fanbase responded to the school's recent basketball success?
MM: Phoenix is a difficult market to be successful in sports fan wise, but I think the fanbase is coming around. The last couple games at home have been particularly crowded at Wells Fargo which is always a great sign for the program. I've noticed a lot more school pride around campus and the 942 crew has been pretty much full since the Las Vegas tourney.
RK: Sean Miller called the Sun Devils the "heavy favorites" to win the Pac-12 and believes they can even win the national championship. Do you agree? Would most Sun Devil fans agree?
MM: Any hot team can win a national title. Though at this point, ASU is more than hot and more than just on a winning streak -- they're a very dangerous, well-coached team that can do some serious damage in March. Something that's pretty interesting to consider is that ASU and UA are both clear favorites to win the Pac-12 this year and they both play the same exact schedule. Should be awesome to follow down the stretch.
MM: I've doubted ASU plenty of times this season on the road and been wrong, but I'll do it again. The unbeaten run will come to an end to the tune of a 87-83 defeat.