It’s rivalry week!
The Arizona Wildcats (17-13, 8-9 Pac-12) will try to end the regular season on a high note when they host the hated Arizona State Sun Devils (20-9, 11-6) on Saturday afternoon.
Tip off at McKale Center is set for 2 p.m. MST and the game will be shown on CBS.
ASU won the first meeting on Jan. 31 in Tempe, a 95-88 overtime victory that marked the first time Bobby Hurley bested Sean Miller as the Sun Devils’ coach. Here are some things to watch as Arizona tries to avoid being swept by ASU for the first time since the 2008-09 season.
How healthy will Arizona be?
Injuries have played a huge role in the Wildcats’ 2018-19 season, starting with forward Ryan Luther breaking a finger in Maui and guard Justin Coleman dislocating his shoulder in practice just days before the Pac-12 opener. Amazingly, Arizona managed to overcome those ailments, but its injury luck eventually ran out.
First, center Chase Jeter suffered a back injury early against Oregon State on Jan. 19, causing him to miss the next two games and need a few more outings to get back to 100 percent. And just as he returned, guard Brandon Williams had to be shut down with pain behind his surgically repaired knee.
Williams missed six games, five of them losses, before coming back off the bench Feb. 24 against Stanford. He played 18 minutes that night, scoring four points, then averaged 11 in games at Oregon State and Oregon while playing 20 and 21 minutes, respectively.
Miller said Williams is now “full go” and will no longer be on a minutes restriction, though it’s unclear if he’ll move back into his spot in the starting lineup.
Even more uncertain is the availability of Jeter, who injured his left knee Feb. 28 at Oregon State and played only six minutes off the bench two days later at Oregon. His absence was noticeable, as Arizona was just 7 of 24 on two-pointers while the Ducks had a 36-14 edge in points in the paint.
Miller said Monday that Jeter, who was diagnosed with a bone bruise, hadn’t practiced since getting hurt and he didn’t know if he would ahead of the ASU game.
“We’ll see with him going forward,” Miller said. “We’ll see if he’s available. Once you get the initial diagnosis of the injury … it’s really (pain) tolerance.”
Jeter played in the first meeting against ASU but it was his first game back from the back injury, and while he logged 31 minutes off the bench he was 1 for 5 from the field and the Sun Devils were plus-16 in the paint.
Arizona is 14-4 in games that both Jeter and Williams log at least 20 minutes, yet that’s only happened once in the past 12 games.
Senior Day spoilers
Saturday is the final home game for Arizona—unless it ends up in the NIT—which means it’s also the last time seniors Coleman and Luther will play at McKale Center. Miller said the Senior Day ceremonies for those players, both graduate transfers who are in their first season with the Wildcats, will be no different than for those who have been in the program for multiple years.
“A year ago we were more traditional, we had Dusan (Ristic) and Parker (Jackson-Cartwright), those guys were with us for four years, how it used to be,” Miller said. “The best compliment I can give Justin Coleman and Ryan Luther is, I feel like they’ve been with us for four years, even though they’ve been only with us for the year.
“Without one of them, without both of them, I don’t know if we’d have won 10 games. They joined us late in the spring, at a time of uncertainty. I’m glad they’ve been able to have a role. We’re eager to send them out with a victory.”
Beating ASU would make for a great going-away present, even more so because it could have the added bonus of keeping the Sun Devils out of the NCAA tournament. Despite being in second place in the league, ASU is squarely on the tourney bubble, meaning it can’t afford any more losses prior to maybe the Pac-12 title game.
(Remember, USC finished second last year and was left out of The Big Dance despite reaching the Pac-12 final, where it lost to Arizona).
As Ryan Kelapire noted earlier this week, this could be the first season since 1980-81 that the NCAA tourney features ASU without also having the Wildcats. Arizona beating the Sun Devils on Saturday could keep that streak alive.
The key to beating ASU is ...
First and foremost, Arizona will have to rebound better than it did the first time around. The Wildcats were only out-boarded 38-35 in Tempe but ASU’s Zylan Cheatham pulled down 22 all by himself, and Arizona managed just 11 second-chance points off 16 offensive rebounds.
ASU is the second-best offensive rebounding team in Pac-12 play, just ahead of Arizona, and it’s 43rd nationally in total rebounding rate.
The Sun Devils also get to the line more frequently than anyone else in the conference, taking nearly 24 per game, yet they shoot only 65.4 percent. ASU was 26 of 35 from the line against Arizona in January, the most free throws any opponent has had this season.
Arizona averages about 18.5 free throws per game in Pac-12 play, though just 15 over the last six games. And when the Wildcats do get to the line they aren’t making the most of it, shooting 62.7 percent over the last seven contests.
Forcing ASU to shoot from the perimeter will also be important. The Sun Devils are making 34.6 percent of their threes in league play, and that accounts for 40 percent of their shots, though four of their six Pac-12 losses saw them jack up a high volume of triples and they’re 6-5 when attempting 23 or more in a game.
What seed will Arizona be in Vegas?
Arizona actually rose in the Pac-12 standings without playing so far this week, as Wednesday and Thursday’s results pushed the Wildcats into a tie for eighth place with USC. That’s the good news.
The bad news is Arizona isn’t likely to move up much higher, win or lose Saturday. That’s because most of the teams they may end up being tied with in the standings would hold tiebreakers over the Wildcats.
Other teams that could end up 9-9 are Oregon, Oregon State, UCLA and either Colorado or USC, who face each other on Saturday. Only OSU would be favorable for Arizona in tiebreakers, because of its sweep of the Beavers, while it split with Colorado and is a combined 0-4 against Oregon and the Los Angeles schools.
The absolute best-case scenario for Arizona is the No. 6 seed, which would happen if was tied with Colorado, Oregon State and USC (which means UCLA has to win at Utah, Oregon has to win at Washington and OSU has to lost at Washington State).
Based on KenPom.com projections, Arizona will finish in a three-way tie for sixth with Oregon and UCLA and end up as the No. 8 seed, facing No. 9 USC on Wednesday. The winner would then take on No. 1 Washington in the quarterfinals.
Regardless of what happens this weekend, Arizona will be playing on the opening day and would need to win four games in four games to secure the Pac-12’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Only Colorado has done that, in 2012 when it knocked off Arizona in the conference title game.
“If we would ever be fortunate to beat Arizona State … that means we would win four out of five heading to Vegas,” Miller said. “We know how to win in Vegas. This is a brand new team, just because we won in the past doesn’t mean anything. But I do think our team has a sense of confidence, we have a number of players who have never lost in Vegas.”