For the first time in recent memory, the Grand Canyon State hosts the two best basketball teams in the Pac-12.
The Arizona Wildcats (20-6, 10-3 Pac-12) have a comfortable two-game lead on the rest of the conference, and as Sunday’s top-16 seed sneak peek revealed, they’re in good standing with the NCAA Tournament selection committee.
The Arizona State Sun Devils (19-6, 7-6) may not be in second place and that 12-0 start may feel like a distant memory, but they’re still the only other Pac-12 team that should feel safe about making the NCAA Tournament.
The two Pac-12 teams with the best odds of playing into March meet for the second time on at 7:00 p.m. MST on ESPN.
The first time around, the Devils came in as one of the most hyped teams in the country, riding a 12-0 start to the conference opener in McKale Center. It was billed as the most important basketball game played between these two programs in the history of their intense rivalry.
It lived up to the hype as the Wildcats dominated the interior and played just enough defense to escape with an 84-78 win.
The rematch is almost upon us and much like before, the Sun Devils are on a hot streak. They’ve won three straight after finally completing their first weekend sweep in conference play, defeating both USC and UCLA last weekend.
Arizona appeared to be reeling, having dropped two straight and suffering their first home loss of the season before coming alive in Saturday night’s 81-67 win over USC.
Now ASU welcomes the Wildcats to Wells Fargo Arena — where they’ve won their last three. Speaking of three in a row, Arizona is looking to make it three straight in what’s been dubbed “McKale North” with a win.
What will it take for the Wildcats to get the job done? Let’s look at three keys to a Wildcats win on Thursday night...
Unleash the beast(s)
Last time these teams met, Deandre Ayton pounded the Devils into oblivion, piling up 23 points, 19 rebounds, three assists, three blocks and a steal.
After the game, Ayton said, “I would say they’re undersized big men, so I took advantage on both sides of the floor.”
It’s only been six weeks so it’s not like ASU’s size has improved. That type of confidence that Ayton can, and will, dominate could very well lead to another excellent performance from the future top-five NBA Draft pick.
But Ayton isn’t the only Arizona big that can have his way against the Sun Devils.
Dusan Ristic is playing the best basketball of his four-year career in Tucson. In his last seven games, Ristic is averaging 16.6 points, 8.7 rebounds and 0.9 blocks while shooting 71 percent from the field and 85 percent from the charity stripe.
If the two big men get whatever they want in Tempe, the Wildcats should handle the Devils with ease.
Strong perimeter defense
The Wildcats’ defense was solid in their win over USC last Saturday but they may need to be tougher on penetration and stronger on closeouts against Arizona State.
In the first meeting, Arizona fared well against what was at the time one of the best offenses in the country — with two exceptions. Freshman guard Remy Martin got loose in the first half and ended up with 11 points. ASU’s best player, Tra Holder, dropped 31 and made it look relatively easy.
While Martin played well, their trio of senior guards are the guys to watch when these two teams meet up for the second time. Holder, Kodi Justice and Shannon Evans are the Devils’ three highest-scorers and need to be guarded strong from deep.
On the season, the three shoot about 8-for-20 from 3-point land per game. The Wildcats held the trio to 6-of-22 from long range back on Dec. 30.
ASU is dying to beat Arizona and it should be expected for these three guys to take the brunt of the responsibility to get the job done. The perimeter defense needs to be led by Rawle Alkins who can use his speed and strength to scare the Devils off the line.
The Sun Devils’ shot-making is occasionally flat-out unstoppable. But if Arizona contests every look ASU has, they should do enough to limit Arizona State’s offense.
Take the crowd out early
As I mentioned, this team is dying to beat the Wildcats. But as bad as they want it, the Sun Devils’ fanbase needs it.
Arizona State’s basketball program hasn’t ridden much of a high since the days of James Harden and all they need to feel like this season was a true success is a win over the Wildcats.
That’s why it’s uber-important for Arizona to come out strong and take the ASU crowd early.
In years past, when Arizona begins to run away from normally bad Sun Devils teams, the arena turns into loud echoes of “U of A” and the crowd looks a lot less maroon and a lot more blue.
There should be many Wildcat fans in attendance on Thursday night but this is ASU’s biggest home game of the season. They’ll show up ready and willing to make it a rough night for Arizona. If those people can be quieted early on, there’s not much that can get in Arizona’s way from sweeping ASU for a third straight season.