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What to watch for when Arizona visits ASU on Thursday

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arizona-wildcats-asu-sun-devils-preview-rivalry-history-remy-martin-sean-miller-2021-pac12 Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats set their sights on their arch rivals when they visit the Arizona State Sun Devils on Thursday night.

It will be the first of two straight matchups between the UA (10-3, 4-3 Pac-12) and ASU (4-6, 1-3), with the return game in Tucson set for Monday. Arizona has lost three of the last four in the series, including the last two in Tempe, with last year’s game seeing the Wildcats blow a 22-point lead along the way.

Here’s everything you need to know from Thursday’s clash, which is set for a 7 p.m. MST tip from Desert Financial Arena with the game being shown on ESPN.

Who’s next?

Thirty-point games have been a rare commodity during the Sean Miller era, with only 12 such occurrences from seven different players during his first 11 seasons at Arizona. This year, though, three different guys have dropped at least 31 in a contest, most recently freshman Bennedict Mathurin last week at Oregon State.

The others are redshirt junior Jemarl Baker Jr., who had 33 against NAU in December, and freshman Azuolas Tubelis, who scored 31 in a home loss to USC on Jan. 7.

Through Tuesday there have been 113 instances of a Division I player scoring 31 or more against another D-I opponent, but Arizona is the only school with three different such contributors. It’s just another example of how diverse and efficient this year’s offense is.

“I really don’t have an explanation,” Miller said when asked how three different guys have been able to go off. “I’m glad it’s happened, I hope it continues to happen. It’s really fun to watch. It’s great to see guys playing with that type of confidence.”

Could there be a fourth 30-point scorer in the mix? The most likely candidates are redshirt sophomore James Akinjo and redshirt sophomore Jordan Brown, both of whom have 20-point games this season. Brown’s came off the bench at OSU, scoring 25 in only 21 minutes, while Akinjo’s propensity for volume shooting—he leads Arizona in field goal attempts per game at 11.8—makes it possible for him to go off if he’s hot.

Only two of the Miller-era 30-point games have been against ASU: Derrick Williams went for 31 in 2011 and Lauri Markkanen had 30 in 2017. Kyle Fogg went for 26 at ASU in 2011, the top output for a Wildcat under Miller in Tempe.

Jerryd Bayless holds the UA record for most points scored in a game against the Sun Devils, going for 39 in 2008.

Road warriors

As much as the lack of fans has impacted the atmosphere at McKale Center—there’s a very good chance one or both of those losses to the Los Angeles schools two weeks ago wouldn’t have happened if there were 14,000-plus on hand—it’s also made Arizona’s road games fairly stress-free.

Arizona is 3-1 on the road this season, its only loss the 78-75 setback against Stanford in Santa Cruz, Calif. on Dec. 19. Those three victories are only one fewer than the Wildcats all of last season, when they started 0-4 on the road before finishing 4-6.

If Arizona wins Thursday in Tempe it will mark its first 4-1 start on the road since 2017-18. That squad won eight road games, one shy of the Miller-era best of nine in 2016-17.

“Part of what you love about (college basketball) is the advantage/disadvantage between playing away and home,” Miller said. “And although there is an advantage, I believe, just through comfort, (without) the fans, it’s just not the same.

“Having said that, we’re in charge of our own energy, our own preparedness, and we have to be ready to play the game under these current circumstances.”

AS-Who?

The Sun Devils narrowly missed out on being picked as the preseason favorite in the Pac-12, falling five votes behind UCLA when conference media made their predictions back in November. Yet this season has been nothing short of disappointing for ASU, which enters Thursday’s game having lost four in a row.

Combined with COVID-related pauses for both its own program and those of opponents, ASU hasn’t won a game since slipping past Grand Canyon on Dec. 13.

Only three of ASU’s 10 main players have appeared in all 10 games, with freshman guard Josh Christopher the only fixture in the starting lineup. The 5-star prospect is tied for the team lead in scoring at 16.5 points per game.

Thursday could be the closest ASU has been to full strength in a while. Sophomore forward Jalen Graham, who hasn’t played since Dec. 16, could be available to play after dealing with mononucleosis, leaving only junior forward Taeshon Cherry (personal reasons) missing from the rotation.

The Remy-sis

There are only two opposing players who have scored 20 or more points against a Miller-era UA team on four occasions, and both are from ASU. One of them gets two more shots to terrorize the Wildcats during the home-and-home series set for Thursday and Monday.

Senior point guard Remy Martin is averaging 16.5 points per game this season, but for his career he’s averaging 20.5 against the UA with four straight 20-point performances. Last year he had 24 in ASU’s comeback win over Arizona in Tempe, and his 27-point, 8-rebound, 7-assist effort in McKale in March 2019 ruined Senior Night for Justin Coleman and Ryan Luther.

It’s been a rough 2020-21 for Martin, however. He’s shooting a career-low 21.6 percent from 3-point range, missing all eight triples in the loss at Oregon State on Saturday. He’d missed the previous two games while attending a family funeral, and he’s had as many single-digit scoring games this season (3) as he has ones of 20-plus.

Miller will be expecting Martin’s best the next two games, though.

“I’ve always had a lot of respect for Remy as a player, dating back to when he was ASU’s sixth man,” who referred to the then-freshman as a “volt of electricity” when coming off the bench. “He impacts the game in so many ways. He just makes energetic big plays. It’s contagious, he inspires the other four players to join him. That’s when I think ASU as a team has been at their best recently, and this year is now different.”

The rebounding and free throw margins

We wrote how Arizona has been elite in three offensive categories this season. Two of them are offensive rebounding and getting to the free throw line. That could show up big time in this series.

The Sun Devils, a much smaller team, rank 254th in the country in defensive rebounding percentage and 317th in opponent free throw rate.

Arizona struggles to defend without fouling too, and ASU is 66th in free throw rate, so it’s possible both teams will be living at the line. But there is no reason Arizona shouldn’t dominate the glass.

Climbing the charts

Miller enters Thursday with 143 wins in conference play at Arizona, which ties him for 10th all-time. He’s currently knotted with ex-Washington coach (and former UA assistant Lorenzo Romar).

No. 1 on the list is Lute Olson, who went 327-101 in Pac-10/12 games from 1984-2007. Miller, at 143-62, has a .698 win percentage in conference games that is behind only John Wooden (.816) and Olson (.764) among coaches who spent at least 10 years in the league.