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Arizona’s wins over ASU are proof of program’s new (and better?) direction

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NCAA Basketball: Arizona at Arizona State Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Arizona beating Arizona State twice in five days was both cathartic and revealing.

Cathartic because, of course, it’s been a few years since the Cats swept the Sun Devils and doing so this season — when Arizona has no postseason to play for and ASU has its most talented team in years — is quite enjoyable.

It does not make up for 70-7, but in all honesty very little could.

The home-and-home sweep, which was capped off by an 80-67 win in which Arizona kept ASU off the scoreboard for the first 6:63 of the game while building a 12-0 lead also showed us something.

The Cats, whose lead ballooned to 25 early in the second half against the team picked to finish 2nd in the Pac-12 during the preseason, had a chance to see a poor man’s version of their worst selves.

The Sun Devils were supposed to excel this season with the additions of Joshua Christopher and Marcus Bagley, recruits who earned five and four stars, respectively. Teamed with seniors Remy Martin and Allonzo Verge, Bobby Hurley’s team was finally primed to break through in the Pac-12.

Instead what they have is a disjointed roster that is short on bigs but high on professional aspirations. Absent an offensive system to rein everyone in, what you get is what we saw: a team whose parts are greater than the sum of its whole.

In other (better) words, they have good players but a bad team.

Arizona’s been there, though in fairness their “bad” hasn’t been this bad in quite some time.

In fact, what Arizona showed over the course of the two wins, as well as the rest of this season, is that they’re actually quite good. They probably are not Pac-12 championship good, and even if they were eligible for the postseason tournaments they appear to be a Sweet 16 kind of team, at best.

Still, the juxtaposition of the two programs over the pair of games was striking.

On the one hand you have the Wildcats, a team filled with solid-to-good players who seem to enjoy playing together and have formed a cohesive team that is winning games despite the loss of the postseason as well as some key players.

On the other hand you have the Sun Devils, a team featuring a couple of likely future first-round NBA picks, possibly as soon as the next draft, struggling to win but excelling at complaining to and about the referees.

To what can we attribute the difference?

Coaching is a big part of it, no doubt. But there’s more to it than that, with the approach to building a roster paramount.

Arizona’s history makes it easier to attract quality talent, but this year’s recruiting class did not feature the sure one-and-dones that the program has become accustom to. Either due to fallout from the FBI/NCAA scandals or a true pivot, Arizona landed a recruiting class and built a roster that seems novel in concept.

Instead the focus appeared to be on landing players who would be with the program for multiple years, affording Sean Miller and his staff the chance to build a roster and help it grow. The head coach was apparently ready for the challenge, as his team is faring far better than anyone anticipated, especially given the circumstances.

ASU does not have the prestige of its rival nor the history of snagging five-star freshmen. Therefore when players like Christopher and Bagley say they want to play for you, you take them and figure out how to make it all work later.

The freshman class as well as what returned led to expectations not often seen in Tempe, the kind Arizona is used to playing with. Unfortunately for the Sun Devils they are not anywhere close to meeting them. You can point to missed games and practice time due to Covid-19 if you want, but ultimately it’s on the coach to lead his team and elevate its play.

One coach may be seeing his reputation turning around; the other not so much.

One program appears to be on the upswing, building toward a better future. The other is Arizona State.

Arizona beating Arizona State happens more often than not, and sweeping them does not a successful season make. But getting to watch the teams play twice within a week provided us a chance to see something we otherwise might not have during a normal season.

We got a clear look at what each team is and where the programs are at.

Arizona is deep, mentally tough and playing for the name on the front of the jersey rather than the one on the back. Arizona State is not deep, not shrivels under pressure and appears to be focused more on what’s next.

Arizona State is what Arizona used to be and what it appears they’ve moved away from.