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What to expect when No. 18 Arizona faces ASU in Pac-12 opener

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 21 Women’s UC Santa Barbara at Arizona Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

For the first time since the 2002-03 season, the No. 18 Arizona Wildcats will be the ranked team when they enter a game against the Arizona State Sun Devils. For the past 17 years that designation had belonged to ASU.

It’s a new experience for these Wildcats.

“For me, it’s fun,” Arizona head coach Adia Barnes said. “I’d feel better if we were totally healthy. A lot better. But I think that’s just how everything...every team’s going through that right now. I think the climb is fun. It’s not fun being chosen last, but then there is no pressure. I think there’s a different pressure now. But I only think about what I can control and we’re going to go out and do our best and still get better.”

As for what the players expect both from ASU and the Pac-12, in general, it’s pretty simple.

“It’s very, very, very hard,” freshman guard Helena Pueyo said.

The Wildcats ended non-conference play at 11-0, but they haven’t faced a major-conference opponent since Nov. 17 when they blew out Texas in Austin. All that comes to an end on Sunday when they open Pac-12 play against the Sun Devils (10-2) in Tempe.

Much has been made about whether the non-conference schedule has properly prepared Arizona for Pac-12 play. In this case, it might not matter. After all, it’s not like ASU is coming off a heavy-hitting non-conference schedule, either.

ASU faced their last major conference opponent on Nov. 30 at the Gulf Coast Showcase. That ended in a loss to Purdue. The Sun Devils’ other major conference match-up was against Minnesota. That Nov. 17 game also ended in defeat for ASU and their drop from the rankings.

“We talk a lot at our conference about scheduling,” Barnes said. “It’s one of the most important things, and that’s why (the Pac-12 is) the No. 1 RPI and that’s very strategic for all the coaches. And we don’t like when someone is under .500 non-conference because it’s very difficult to get to .500 in conference.”

Sunday, the in-state rivals will take a major step up in competition. That likely means that there will be some kinks to work out for both teams. It also means that pre-conference stats are probably fairly reliable when comparing the two teams.

Analytics site Her Hoop Stats has Arizona rated as the No. 18 team in Division I, which is also where the voters in both major polls place the Wildcats. The site rates ASU at No. 54. What do the stats see as the primary differentiators?

The Sun Devils are traditionally a very strong defensive team. It’s their calling card under head coach Charli Turner Thorne. This year is no different.

“They play very aggressive defense,” Arizona senior guard Lucia Alonso said. “So I hope we are able to like handle the pressure and aren’t going to turn the ball over. At the same time we need to pressure them because I feel like they don’t like to get pushed.”

The last part of Alonso’s analysis is key. Like last year, the Wildcats are often beating ASU at their game. While people were more likely to talk about the offense of Aari McDonald when referring to last year’s Arizona squad, they were as good as or better than ASU in many defensive metrics in 2018-19.

In early 2019-20 the only change has been that Arizona has widened the gap in the things they did better than their rival last year and overtaken ASU in the things where they lagged behind. Overall, ASU is rated as the No. 40 defense by Her Hoop Stats. Arizona? No. 6 overall.

The Sun Devils are holding opponents to 54 points per game, while the Wildcats have limited theirs to 43.6 ppg. That is pretty good for ASU, putting them at No. 17 of the 351 Division I teams, but it’s hard to top No. 1. That’s where Arizona sits.

The Wildcats come in at No. 2 in opponents points per 100 possesions (6.2.6) compared to No. 28 (77.9) for the Sun Devils.

The defensive showing by the Wildcats helps their offensive superiority stand out that much more. Arizona stands at No. 50 in Her Hoops Stats’ offensive ratings compared to No. 74 for ASU. The Wildcats are putting up 73.8 ppg and 105.5 points per 100 possessions. Their rivals are scoring 69.2 ppg and 98.3 per 100 possessions.

With the defense coming in strong for the Wildcats, that means Arizona is No. 4 at margin per game (30.2 ppg), while ASU is at No. 36 (15.2 ppg). When broken down per 100 possessions, the Wildcats move up to No. 3 (42.9) and the Sun Devils stay at No. 36 (20.5).

Despite the heavy hit their frontcourt took from graduation after last year, one stat that ASU still controls is offensive rebounding. It’s not even close, either.

The Sun Devils are pulling down 18.2 offensive rebounds per game. That’s No. 3 in DI. Their offensive rebound rate of 45.6 percent ranks first.

The Wildcats have been poor on the offensive glass, corralling just 10.3 o-rpg. That’s an abyssmal No. 280 in the country. If you want to put a positive spin on it, you can hang your hat on the fact that it’s an improvement from the 9.9 o-rpg they snagged last season.

On the defensive boards, it’s a different story. Arizona tops ASU with 28.7 d-rpg vs 25.6 d-rpg. The Sun Devils still have a higher defensive rebound rate, though. Their 76.4 percent comes in at seventh while Arizona’s 75.1 percent ranks fourteenth.

What do the stats tell us? Well, overall, Arizona has been the superior team in almost every facet of the game. Given that neither has faced a particularly tough schedule, that would mean a lot more if this were not a rivalry game.

Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News tweeted during football season that he thought the Arizona-ASU rivalry was the most bitter one in the conference. That bitterness isn’t confined to football, and it can be highly motivating.

Arizona and ASU split their games last year with each team protecting home court with a 13-point winning margin. The Wildcats opened conference play by surprising the Sun Devils and putting the Pac-12 on notice that this was a different Arizona team. ASU got revenge later in the season.

Can the Wildcats take the next step and get the victory on the road? They have the talent. Now they just need to put it into action on the big stage.

How to watch

The game will tip off in Desert Financial Arena at 12 p.m. MST on Sunday, Dec. 29. It will be aired on the Pac-12 Networks.

The radio call will be on KTUC 1400 AM. KTUC is available on or via the Tunein app.

Game stats will be available at Arizona Live Stats.