Tip-off at what should be a raucous Wells Fargo Arena, affectionately called “The Bank”, is scheduled for 7 p.m. MST on ESPN2.
Here are some things to watch for.
Bobby’s first win
Sean Miller has owned Bobby Hurley since the latter took over as ASU’s head coach in 2015. Or any Hurley for that matter. Miller is 6-0 against Bobby and 2-0 against his younger brother Danny, whose UConn team lost to UA earlier this season.
But if there is ever a time for Bobby to snap that skid, this is it. The Sun Devils are favored by five points on their home court and, for once, might be more talented than their rivals from the south.
“I can’t say enough good things about Bobby Hurley, just watching how he’s invigorated the fan base and what it feels like to play at home game at Wells Fargo Arena, versus maybe how it used to,” Miller said. “It’s night and day and that’s to his credit. They had an outstanding non-conference season, which not only helps themselves but helps our conference and we know that we have our hands full very similar to going to SC or to UCLA. They have depth, they have talent and they’re playing a home game. So I think those coveted home games are important for all of us. No doubt they recognize that.”
Hurley, predictably, had similar praise for Arizona.
“They are still an elite program,” he said. “They are having a very good season considering Sean lost so much with guys going to the NBA and graduating. So, he has done a fantastic job with where they are and how hard his team competes. I do not try to get caught up in if I am getting closer to being as good as someone else. I just try to focus on what we are doing here.”
What’s at stake?
For Arizona, Thursday’s game is an opportunity to get back to winning ways after a nasty two-game stretch in Los Angeles in which they suffered 20-point losses to USC and UCLA. It is also probably a must-win game for the Wildcats if they want to stay in Pac-12 title contention. Washington improved to 8-0 on Wednesday with a 13-point win over USC.
ASU is in a similar boat. The Sun Devils would all but remove themselves from Pac-12 title contention with a home loss to Arizona. ASU would also hurt its chances of earning an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
The Sun Devils, boasting wins over Mississippi State, Kansas, Georgia and Utah State, are one of the only Pac-12 teams with an impressive non-conference resume, so they might be able to sneak into March Madness without winning a Pac-12 regular season or tournament championship.
Of course, anytime ASU and Arizona meet there are bragging rights on the line. And in a year where both teams could miss the NCAA Tournament, beating their in-state rival could be the highlight of their respective seasons.
“The rivalry will have some extra juice,” Hurley said. “There are a lot of great things that go along with playing a program that has the track record and success that Arizona has. So it is on the same level when we had Kansas here just in terms of the magnitude.”
Will Chase Jeter play?
The Arizona center missed the LA road trip due to the back injury he suffered two weeks ago against Oregon State, but Miller did not seem optimistic about getting the big man back for Thursday’s game.
“I really don’t know,” Miller said. “He didn’t practice (Monday). I really think it’s his call, in terms of discomfort, pain, how much he can tolerate. He’s making progress.”
When Jeter first went down with the injury, the Wildcats stepped up admirably in his place, somehow outrebounding the Beavers in a narrow win. Ryan Luther and Dylan Smith, the two who have experienced the biggest minute increase in Jeter’s absence, had huge nights.
“Guys can rally, do the best that they can, kind of rise to the challenge and I really think that happened when Chase went down,” Miller said.
Some basketball folks call that the “Ewing Effect” in which the New York Knicks “inexplicably played better when Patrick Ewing was either injured or missing extended stretches because of foul trouble.”
It is generally not sustainable, as we saw in Arizona’s losses to UCLA and USC when it became abundantly clear that the Wildcats need their MVP back.
“Bigger picture is when the other team now knows that (Jeter is) not going to be playing and you start to look at the different roles that everybody really has from start to finish, it affects a lot of different things,” Miller said.
“Not just him being there or not being there, but everybody kind of has a different role, different seat on the bus, different expectations. When you get ready to sub, you move to a different player than you otherwise would have. So it definitely affects the whole, but we’re not the only team that is going through injuries or an injury to a key player, and it’s up to us to respond and do the best we can.”
Can Arizona not be an embarrassment on offense?
The Wildcats’ offense has tanked without Jeter, shooting just 30 percent from the field and 26 percent from 3 in their blowout losses to USC and UCLA. Without his presence on the low block, Arizona has been taking — and missing — boatloads of jump shots.
The inaccuracy is just as much of a confidence issue as it is a they-just-had-a-couple-bad-night issue.
“I think it’s already in their head to some degree,” Miller said.
So...how do you fix it?
“I think the one thing is to really work on it, making sure we’re taking good shots, being able to play through misses,” Miller answered. “There’s more to the game than just shooting the ball, but I think the toll that it takes on a group when you’re constantly coming off a missed shot, it puts a lot of pressure on the defense, puts a lot of pressure on guys to keep pushing and playing with great effort. It’s nice sometimes when a ball can go. That’s encouraging and that allows you to feel good about the effort you now have to put forth on defense.”
Speaking of defense, the Wildcats were a Top-25 defensive team before Jeter went down to injury, but they now sit at 42nd in the country in defensive efficiency, per KenPom. UCLA posted a 122.2 offensive rating against the Wildcats, easily the highest mark UA has surrendered this season.
It is not just Jeter’s rim-protection, ability to draw charges, and rebounding that UA misses, it’s their captain’s communication, as he is the one who generally quarterbacks the defense.
“I’ve had to be a lot more vocal on defense, especially ball screens or just where to be in general because the big guy usually sees everything,” said forward Ira Lee, who played a career-high 30 minutes against UCLA. “So it’s harder, but I’m getting used to it.”
Hurley did a good job summing up how impressive UA’s cohesion usually is on that end of the court.
“Technically, they are very sound on defense and you can tell they work really hard at it,” he said. “(Miller) has a distinct style with how they defend, ball screen coverages, and being in the right position. It is amazing watching film to see how effective they are at taking charges in the paint.”
Who will start at the 4?
Arizona has started two different frontcourt combinations during Jeter’s absence, swapping Lee and Smith at the 4.
Miller said Tuesday that he doesn’t know who will start against ASU if Jeter is unable to go, but acknowledged the decision comes down to matchups.
Seeing that ASU is in the top 35 in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage, Lee seems like the smarter bet. Then again Smith’s ability to defend off the dribble could come in handy against ASU point forward Zylan Cheatham.
“I don’t know if it’s an easy call who to start, who not to,” Miller said.
Will Arizona play some zone?
The Sun Devils are only shooting 34 percent from 3 and their offense is predicated on dribble-drive, so teams have almost exclusively played zone against them in conference play. (Sound familiar?)
But Arizona rarely ever uses zone under Miller, which the Sun Devils are happy about.
“That’ll be something different unless Sean decides to do something we don’t expect,” Hurley told reporters. “We’re actually looking forward to that.”
“To see a team that has that traditional man and they stick to their principals, it’s going to be an adjustment, but we’ve been practicing man-to-man offense because we play so much man,” added Cheatham. “I think we’ve prepared ourselves well and we’re going to continue to do so.”
ASU, 53rd in tempo, likes to push the ball in transition. Arizona, 197th, likes to slow it down. The team that can impose its style of play will obviously be at an advantage Thursday.
“They’re a very fast and very energetic team,” Lee said. “I think that’s one thing they’ll probably come at us with.”
That means limiting long misses and turnovers will be key for the Wildcats. Despite their offensive struggles, they have actually been good at the latter, only committing a combined 16 turnovers on the LA road trip last week.
“Our dribble penetration, our ball movement, being able to get the ball balanced so we’re not just shooting 3s, we’re not just shooting 2s, I thought we really had that,” Miller said.
ASU has tons of new faces this year, and you have to start by mentioning Cheatham and star freshman Luguentz Dort.
Cheatham, a 6-foot-8 transfer from San Diego State, averages 12 and 10, handles the ball and defends at a high level. Even his 3-point shooting is coming along, albeit at a small sample size.
“Zylan Cheatham has been maybe the best addition to maybe any team in our conference,” Miller said. “The fact that he’s averaging over 10 rebounds a game on the season, I think speaks to his talent. He plays with a big motor, a guy that I think has a lot of confidence.”
Dort, a brute but athletic 6-foot-4 guard from Canada, is ASU’s leading scorer at 16.5 points per game, but his shooting has tailed off in recent weeks. For the season, he is shooting just 39 percent overall and 28 percent from 3. He does his best work at the rim, though sometimes he gets reckless.
“He’s physical and strong. He reminds me a lot of Rawle Alkins the way he’s built,” Miller said. “And I think for such a young player, he’s got a great confidence about that can permeate through their roster.”
ASU has three other players averaging double figures — eccentric guard Remy Martin, 6-foot-4 sharpshooter Rob Edwards and sophomore Kimani Lawrence.
ASU’s biggest strength is its ability to get to the free-throw line, ranking 20th in the country in free-throw rate. That said, the Devils only shoot 67.4 from the stripe.
I have mentioned ASU’s poor 3-point shooting already, and one of its best marksmen, Taeshon Cherry, is questionable for Thursday’s game with a concussion.
The five-star freshman is 30 for 81 from 3 this season, a 37 percent clip.