Everybody take a breath.
That’s the fact but it doesn’t tell even close to the full story. It was an intense, passionate, hard-fought, barnburner of a battle in McKale Center.
The Wildcats were throwing haymakers, continuously trying to knock the gritty Sun Devils out. ASU consistently responded, refusing to go down to Arizona no matter what the deficit may be. Arizona was displaying power, athleticism and skill, building up a double-digit lead multiple times in the second half. Arizona State was showing off their poise and hustle, causing the Wildcats to make goofy mistakes and hitting big shots to stay alive.
In the end, the Sun Devils ran out of gas and the Wildcats started their Pac-12 season triumphant over their hated rival. Let’s take a deeper look at the positives and negatives from an instant classic in Tucson:
Tonight served as a reminder that Deandre Ayton is just a freshman in college. He’s a 19-year-old kid playing in his 14th game at a high level and he had moments where it certainly showed. Ayton turned the ball over six times including a terrible pass in the final minute that led to a Kodi Justice three-pointer to keep the Sun Devils alive.
But when Ayton wasn’t making mistakes, he was tormenting ASU. He piled up 23 points, 19 rebounds, three assists, three blocks and one steal — a ridiculous Pac-12 debut for the future top five NBA Draft pick.
He did it all on Saturday night and it goes far beyond the box score. Ayton fought through double teams, scored through contact, dropped dunks on defender’s skulls, swatted shots on the other end and guarded beautifully on the perimeter.
So yes, he’s just a kid. He’s prone to the occasional silly mistake and turnover. He’s just a kid. And that should absolutely terrify the rest of the basketball world.
Arizona State came in to McKale Center as one of the best shooting teams in the country but the Wildcats kept them in check on Saturday night.
ASU was held to less than 38 percent shooting and it wasn’t due to a cold shooting night from the Devils. Arizona strongly contested most of ASU’s attempts and forced them to take difficult shots especially near the rim.
Arizona State made 8-of-25 attempts from long range for 32 percent from deep but it could have been much lower. Many of ASU’s eight three-pointers was simply impressive shot making and Sun Devils guards pulling up from long distance before Arizona’s defense was able to get out there and get a hand up.
Arizona stuck with their man, fought through screens, never shied away from switching and consistently got hands in the faces of shooters. It was necessary against a hot shooting No. 3 team in the country and it got the job done.
The state of Arizona
Just a quick personal note — I’ve lived in Tucson, Arizona my entire life and have followed Arizona basketball for as long as I can remember. I’m deeply invested in the Arizona-Arizona State rivalry, always have been and always will be.
So, when I write what I’m about to write, I don’t say it lightly or with any hyperbole whatsoever.
ASU is for real.
The Wildcats are expected to contend on a yearly basis. They’re one of the prominent programs in the country. They were massively hyped before this season began, stumbled out of the gate and are now starting to live up to the hype, winning eight in a row. They’re tremendously talented and feature multiple players that will play in the NBA.
And yet, Bobby Hurley’s ASU team gave Arizona everything they could handle. It turns out that that team that started 12-0 is very, very good. College basketball fans were treated to a classic on Saturday night between two of the best teams in the country and they happen to be intense rivals and from the same state.
It’s still very early but these teams are clearly the two best in the Pac-12 as we enter 2018. This rivalry has never been hotter than right now, tonight was a lot of fun and all of us basketball fans in Arizona should kick back and enjoy.
Arizona has had a sneaky lingering issue all season. They don’t generally have a high volume of turnovers but they have these stretches of time where they give up the ball like they’re allergic to the basketball.
They did have a bunch of turnovers on Saturday night with 16 total, their second highest total of the season (Arizona had 19 turnovers against SMU). But most of them came in clusters of terribly sloppy minutes.
Arizona doesn’t have a turnover problem but they do have a problem where one turnover leads to another the issue snowballs for multiple minutes at a time. The Wildcats are a very rhythm based team and when they’re out of their rhythm, the turnovers come out in droves. They need to figure out a way to snap out of these turnover clusters.
Going Against a Full Court Press
While we’re on the subject of turnovers, Arizona’s ability to deal with full court pressure was horrendous on Saturday night, leading to most of their giveaways.
The Wildcats had a similar issue toward the beginning of last season. Teams knew to press Arizona, especially when they’re trying to pass the ball in bounds. The Wildcats didn’t know how to handle those situations and would commonly turn into a comedy of errors for Arizona.
Saturday night brought that issue to the surface in a bad, bad way once again. Late in the game, Arizona couldn’t seem to get the ball across the half-court line without some sort of drama. Whether it was dangerous passes, getting trapped in corners, trouble getting the ball in at all or flat out giving the ball away, it created unnecessary problems and kept the Sun Devils hanging around much longer than they should have.
Lack of Real Depth
This Arizona Wildcats team was hyped as being the deepest Arizona team in years. If that’s true, we’re not being allowed to see it.
Dylan Smith was fantastic in the first half, knocking down three 3-pointers. Brandon Randolph hit a wide open 3-pointer. Both of them played 12 minutes on Saturday night. Ira Lee pulled down a couple strong rebounds in his eight minutes. Alex Barcello had a rather uninspiring six minutes on the floor.
When it came down to it, Sean Miller really rode the starters. Dusan Ristic logged 26 minutes but the other four starters were on the floor for at least 33 minutes. If this team is truly going to live up to its potential, guys need to get a longer look. Or in the case of someone like Emmanuel Akot, a look at all.
It’s become clear that this will be a team that leans on the starting five to do it all. It’s an unexpected turn and could be a tough task to live up to the expectations Arizona has without truly reliable bench play.