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What to watch for when Arizona hosts ASU in Pac-12 opener

This is a big one

NCAA Basketball: Arizona State at Arizona
Remy Martin shoots over Dylan Smith
Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

The wait is over.

After two weeks off, the No. 25 Arizona Wildcats (10-3) will return to action Saturday when they host the Arizona State Sun Devils (9-4) in McKale Center.

The Sun Devils swept last season’s series for the first time in a decade. The first of two rematches this season will tip off at 7:30 p.m. MST on the Pac-12 Network.

Here are some things to watch for. Be sure to check out our basketball section for more pregame coverage.

White’s ankle

ASU center Romello White is questionable for Saturday’s game due to a right ankle sprain he suffered last Saturday in a win over Texas Southern.

Averaging 11.6 points and 10.1 rebounds per game, the burly 6-foot-8 bruiser is ASU’s best post player and one of the most efficient scorers in the country.

As much as Arizona struggles on the glass (we’ll get to that in a second), the Sun Devils are even worse. They rank 258th (of 353) in the country in offensive rebounding percentage and 179th in defensive rebounding percentage—and that’s with White in the lineup.

“He’s such a big part of what we do, especially just his presence in the paint, especially with the size and the productivity of Arizona’s front court,” ASU coach Bobby Hurley told reporters this week. “It’s important that he gets all the ice possible between now and Saturday and hope that he continues to progress.”

Prior to getting injured, White had posted six straight double-digit rebounding games. If he plays, his physicality will present a tough matchup for Arizona center Chase Jeter and company.

“It looks like he’s in great shape,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said of White. “He’s offensive rebounding the last five games about as well as any player that we will face all season long. He’s running the court great. He’s a low-post scorer. He’s a veteran. He’s been through multiple Pac-12 seasons, and he’s been in the winner’s circle—and he’s a handful in the post.”

Stone is back. Will he wear a mask?

As ASU hopes to get one of its frontcourt players back from injury, the Wildcats already know they will have Stone Gettings (concussion/facial fracture) available after a five-game absence.

Miller described the fifth-year senior’s return as a “shot in the arm.” The Wildcats have missed his shooting, rebounding, and interior scoring. They went 2-3 without him.

The Cornell transfer hasn’t played since late November, so he could be a little rusty. Then again, Miller said Gettings has been “looking great” in practice and might not even need to wear a mask against the Sun Devils.

You can read more about that in our update from Thursday.

Arizona curing what ails them

Miller bluntly laid out three areas Arizona has been working to shore up heading into Pac-12 play—defensive rebounding, defending without fouling, and smarter shot selection.

ASU isn’t really equipped to exploit those first two weaknesses. They are an average at best rebounding team (even with White) and rank 139th in the country in free throw rate, about average.

The shot selection bit is all about self-discipline. Miller stressed that Zeke Nnaji needs more touches, and he has a favorable matchup against ASU’s undersized frontcourt. But that doesn’t necessarily mean Arizona will actually get him the ball.

Nico Mannion and Josh Green have both been in shooting slumps lately, and they will either need to start making their shots or yield to Nnaji, who is third on the team in field-goal attempts despite his gaudy 69.6 field-goal percentage.

Containing Remy Martin

Martin eviscerated the Wildcats in both games last season. The lightning-quick guard averaged 29 points and 7.5 assists while shooting 58 percent from the field and 45 percent from 3 in a pair of ASU wins.

Aside from Dylan Smith, Arizona will have some new bodies to throw at Martin this time around. Maybe it will lead to better results. So far, the junior is having the best year of his career, averaging nearly 18 points per game.

“He’s just a terrific player,” Miller said. “Seems like a great leader, does it at both ends.”

Fellow junior Alonzo Verge Jr. (15.2 ppg) has proven to be equally dangerous this season. Most notably, he scored 43 points in a loss to Saint Mary’s and has two other 20+ point games. Like Martin, the junior college transfer does his best work slashing to the rim. The 6-foot-3 Verge is just a bit bigger than his backcourt mate.

“It’s tough to get 50 as a team against Saint Mary’s, let alone one player, so we respect him him a great deal,” Miller said.

ASU is only shooting 30.4 percent from 3, so Arizona’s focus should be denying dribble penetration and forcing the Sun Devils to hoist perimeter shots (just as the pack line is designed to do). But against guys as swift as Martin and White, that will be easier said than done.

“Can we play a 40-minute game and take care of the ball?”

Hurley’s teams at ASU have typically been better on offense than defense, but the script has flipped this season. The Sun Devils enter with the No. 60 defense in the country and No. 135 offense.

Not gifted with size, the Sun Devils regularly trot out three-guard lineups and, this year especially, like to full-court press. ASU’s defense ranks 40th in turnover rate, an area the Wildcats’ offense has been hit or miss this season.

“It’s kind of a head-scratching team with that,” Miller said. “We could play four-minute segments and almost go four or five turnovers. We’ve had 10-turnover halves, which has really hurt us. But in the second half of those games, we can play the entire 20 minutes with three. We did that against St. John’s. First half, 10 turnovers. Second half, three.

“But we’ve had a lot of single-digit stretches of turnovers and that’s a big stat. When you’re getting shots every time down, for example Gonzaga, we just missed a ton of shots. Some of them just we’re crazy shots. But in terms of playing a 40-minute game against the quality team of that pace and had those turnovers being that low, that’s a good sign. I think that’s one of the keys us playing well against ASU. Can we play a 40-minute game and take care of the ball? That’s really important against them.”

You know what else ASU’s pressure can cause? Quick, ill-advised shots. We know how Miller feels about those.

“Say we play fast and shoot the ball quick and they don’t go in, any team in the country can beat us,” he said. “And we’re not a smart team with our shot selection and that’s on me. I think you’ll see a big change with that.”

A starting lineup change?

Could that entail a change to the starting lineup? Smith was benched in the first half vs. St. John’s after bricking a transition 3 early in the shot clock, and did not return to the game.

Smith has been ice cold since that huge weekend in Anaheim, shooting just 36 percent from the field and 32 percent from 3. Perhaps it has provided an opening for Jemarl Baker Jr., Arizona’s best 3-point shooter, to crack the starting five.

Lots of implications

Every Arizona-ASU game is a must-win for in-state bragging rights, but this one seems especially critical for both squads. Next week they will head to the Pacific Northwest to face No. 4 Oregon and Oregon State, one of the toughest trips in the Pac-12.

Obviously the Ducks are good, but the Beavers cannot be overlooked either. They currently reside in KenPom’s Top 100 and feature arguably the best player in the conference in Tres Tinkle.

So if Arizona loses to ASU, it’s likely looking at a 1-2 start to Pac-12 play, maybe even 0-3 if things go haywire in Oregon. That might be too much to overcome from a Pac-12 championship perspective, but also when it comes to morale.

Remember, the Wildcats are already entering conference play as losers of three of their last four. Compound that with a rough start to the Pac-12 season, and the wheels could really start to come off the wagon.

However, if Arizona beats ASU, it will already have (at least) a one-game lead on two of the teams who were picked to finish ahead of them in the Pac-12—Washington and Oregon. Both dropped their conference openers.

And, yes, it’s important Arizona avenges the Sun Devils’ sweep last season. Both teams have experienced their fair share of turnover since then, especially Arizona, which has eight new players. They’ll quickly find out that this rivalry means a little bit more.

“I think they can feel it,” said Jeter, one of UA’s few returning players. “And I know they’ll feel it when the game comes Saturday.”

Arizona has not lost its Pac-12 opener since 2009-10, Miller’s first season. KenPom gives the Wildcats an 86 percent chance of keeping that streak alive Saturday.