The Arizona Wildcats head north to Tempe on Thursday to rematch the Arizona State Sun Devils, who they beat 84-78 earlier in the season in Tucson.
No. 17 Arizona (20-6, 10-3) is coming off a win vs. USC, and has a two-game lead atop the Pac-12 standings.
No. 25 ASU (19-6, 7-6) is on a three-game winning streak, but Bobby Hurley has never beaten Sean Miller during his tenure at ASU, so something will have to give there.
Tip-off is set for 7 p.m. MST on ESPN, and here some things to watch during the game:
Which Arizona team will show up?
Arizona is coming off a strange week which featured two polar-opposite performances. Thursday, the Wildcats were diced up by the UCLA Bruins, who scored 82 points on 52 percent shooting, handing the UA a rare home loss.
Two days later, Arizona turned in one of its best performances all season, particularly on the defensive end, where it held USC to 44 percent shooting in an 81-67 win.
UA’s effort was better, the rotations were crisper, and the Wildcats absolutely manhandled the Trojans on the glass, out-rebounding them 42-22.
So, what changed? USC isn’t quite as good offensively as UCLA, which Miller acknowledged, but maybe something off the court affected UA’s play, too.
The Wildcats held a team meeting between games where they aired their grievances and floated ideas. Miller specifically mentioned having a sit-down with the bench unit, which played one of its best games all season against USC, to explain what’s expected of them.
“Everyone just said what was on their mind,” said UA guard Rawle Alkins. “It wasn’t one person dominating. It was a little bit of everyone sharing what was on their mind.”
Arizona had a similar get-together after losing three straight in the Bahamas, though that time Dusan Ristic led the discussion, delivering a “heartfelt” speech.
Arizona responded well from that, too, eventually winning nine straight. So maybe the beatdown from UCLA was exactly what the Wildcats needed before they enter the most important stretch of the season — a reminder that, if they don’t bring top-notch effort every night, any decent team can beat them. Even at home.
“We don’t really lose in McKale … so it was tough to lose that game,” Alkins said. “We just had to move up from there.”
Can Arizona repeat its defensive success against ASU?
ASU once had one of the top offenses in the country, but it ranks 14th nationally now, and just fifth in the Pac-12, averaging 108 points per 100 possessions in league play.
One adjustment teams have made against the Sun Devils is, and this will sound familiar, using zone defense. But knowing Miller’s coaching tendencies, that will likely not be something Arizona will experiment with.
To be fair, the Wildcats fared just fine against the Sun Devils back in December using good ole man-to-man. Arizona held ASU to 38 percent shooting, including a suboptimal 8-for-25 mark from 3.
But that was one game.
ASU can be as proficient as any offense in the country when it’s hitting shots, plus its two biggest strengths — 3-point shooting and getting the free throw line — are two areas UA generally struggles in.
“There’s a number of teams in our conference that thrive in that area, and there are times we haven’t done a good job,” Miller said of UA’s 3-point defense. “That’s one of many keys in our game Thursday, is to recognize how lethal they are and how quickly they can score points by not just one or two players, but a number of them really utilize the 3-point shot.
“I think the other thing about ASU is they also combine that with getting to the foul line, Tra Holder in particular. He can live at the foul line, and those are two problematic areas for us. Defending the 3-point shot and playing 40 minutes without fouling. We’re after growth in both of those areas and we’ll be challenged in both of those areas for sure.”
Holder was the one Sun Devil that was a thorn in the Wildcats’ side last time. The senior scored 31 points on just 12 shots, draining four 3s and shooting 15-of-16 from the free throw line.
Arizona used a combination of Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Allonzo Trier on Holder, so that will probably be the case Thursday since there aren’t really any other options (maybe Emmanuel Akot?).
The Wildcats have struggled against every good point guard they have faced this year, but they would likely be OK with Holder going off if it meant the rest of the Sun Devils are held in check as was the case in December.
Will size beat small ball again?
Before Arizona and ASU played each other the first time, one of the biggest storylines centered on how UA’s oversized frontcourt would handle ASU’s small-ball, spread-the-floor offensive attack.
Arizona won that battle handily.
Ristic had 12 points and 4 rebounds, while Deandre Ayton, receiving the ball time and time again near the basket, had 23 points and 19 rebounds, fending off double- and triple-teams.
Not only did the Sun Devils looked unprepared for UA’s size, Hurley admitted they were. Because nobody on ASU’s (or anybody’s) scout team can replicate the things Ayton does.
ASU big man Romello White, who fouled out in just 18 minutes, learned that pretty quickly.
“Romello I’m sure hasn’t seen two guys like that,” Hurley said.
ASU still can’t simulate Ayton’s size, but it at least has an idea what it’s going up against this time. So it will be interesting to see if Hurley and company change their game plan, or continue to throw defender after defender at Ayton and hope for a different outcome.
One thing Arizona needs to do to maximize its size advantage is take care of the ball and not let the game become a track meet, as UA’s frontcourt is much easier to exploit in transition.
The Sun Devils tried to speed things up last time by pressing, and they did force 16 turnovers. Arizona probably won’t be able to get away with that on the road.
Will Kimani Lawrence be a difference-maker?
ASU went 12-0 in non-conference play, but is just 7-6 in league play. The Sun Devils finally got their first Pac-12 sweep this past weekend against the L.A. schools.
ASU was ranked No. 3 when it faced Arizona the first time, now it is No. 25 after being unranked for a short while.
But Miller doesn’t think the Sun Devils have changed all that much, despite what the records and rankings say.
“The last time we played them, they were undefeated. I think if they would have beaten us that night in McKale, they would have been the No. 1-ranked team in the nation,” he said. “So this time I’m sure they’re very confident and they should be. But I thought the last time we played them, they were very confident as well.
“They were a good team the first time and I think they’re equally good now.”
One difference this time is ASU has Kimani Lawrence at its disposal. The freshman forward was ASU’s highest-ranked recruit ever, but missed the first half of the season because a broken left foot.
Lawrence returned in early January and initially did not make much of an impact, but he just had the best game of his career against UCLA last weekend, posting 8 points, 7 rebounds, 3 steals, and a block in 16 minutes.
“He’s given the Devils extra versatility on defense and added length on both sides of the ball,” Jordan Kaye, the co-managing editor of House of Sparky told us in our Q&A.
Arizona shot .450/.400/.870 against ASU in December and has the best offense in the Pac-12, so any help the Sun Devils can get defensively is welcomed.
Though, believe it or not, ASU actually has a better defense than Arizona this season. The Sun Devils rank 97th in efficiency; the Wildcats are 109th.
Arizona probably locks up the Pac-12 title with a win
Arizona has a two-game lead (in the loss column) over USC, UCLA, Oregon, and Washington atop the Pac-12 standings entering Thursday.
The Wildcats are only given a 40 percent of beating ASU by KenPom, but if they do escape Tempe with a win, they will almost certainly be Pac-12 champions barring a major collapse.
Especially when you consider that Oregon, USC, and UCLA all have to play each other again, meaning two of those teams are guaranteed to pick up at least one more loss.
Plus, Arizona’s last four games consist of two road contests against the Oregon schools, then a pair of home games against the Bay Area schools. Not exactly murderer’s row.
But if Arizona loses to ASU, things get a bit more precarious heading into the final two weeks of conference play.
Don’t expect Wells Fargo Arena to be McKale North
Prior to this season, the last time Arizona and ASU played each other while both in the Top 25 was all the back in 1994-95 — 23 years ago.
Now, they are about to do it twice in one season. This time it’s Tempe’s turn to host, and ASU fans are understandably hyped.
Students started camping at Wells Fargo Arena as early as Wednesday afternoon, and are having a gold-out, becoming the 24303838th straight school to have a color-out against Arizona this season. (That is an unofficial estimate. Maybe.)
Generally, when ASU is just OK in basketball, Arizona fans flood The Bank with red and blue, almost outnumbering Sun Devils fans — a phenomenon known as “McKale North.”
That happened last year, but don’t expect that to be the case Thursday.
ASU just drew over 14,000 fans last Saturday when it hosted UCLA, and it is on pace to break its all-time attendance record. The school even knocked down a wall so it could increase The Bank’s capacity.
So while Arizona has not lost to ASU in Tempe in the Miller-Hurley era, it has also never dealt with a crowd like the one it will experience Thursday.
At least not at that venue.
“When we play on the road, we get the crowd’s best shot,” Miller said.
The toughest crowd Arizona has faced this season was at Washington, where the ‘Cats lost on a buzzer-beater.
“I think ASU is probably crazier,” Alkins opined. “I hope that we have more fans than ASU. That’s how it was last year. But who knows? This year, they’re playing great so they might have more people.”
Oh, they will.
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire