Arizona began Pac-12 play by splitting a pair of game earlier in December, but the real conference schedule begins Saturday when the fifth-ranked Wildcats (12-1, 1-1) visit ASU in the renewal of a rivalry that has leaned toward UA from the outset.
To better understand the Sun Devils, we reached out to Scott Sandulli of SB Nation site site House of Sparky. Here are his restrained answers to our emotional questions:
AZ Desert Swarm: ASU is off to a pretty impressive start, sitting at 11-2 and (briefly) making it into the AP Top 25. Was this expected going into the season?
Scott Sandulli: “Having lost plenty of production from last year’s team and putting together a whole new group, it was expected that the Sun Devils would take some time to mesh the new squad together. Those expectations were wrong. Despite a streaky offense and the uncertainty surrounding Marcus Bagley, ASU has ridden one of the nation’s top defenses to a start not many foresaw. The AP poll may as well have been the moon to the Devils when the season started, but fantastic chemistry and lockdown defense has gotten them to key victories and in a position to make a run for the NCAA Tournament.”
Bobby Hurley went heavy on transfers once again this offseason, and this crop seems to have paid off so far. Which of the transfers have had the greatest impact?
“The transfers have been key to the team’s early success. Warren Washington has played great on both sides of the post. Frankie Collins has helped organize the offense and can core when needed. Devan Cambridge defends some of the opposition’s best with a little bit of offensive action both at the rim and beyond the arc. The most impactful of the group, though, has Desmond Cambridge. As the team’s main source of offense, he’s provided plenty of big buckets thus far, while leading scorer DJ Horne hasn’t gotten his points in the clutch situations as Cambridge has.
The offensive numbers aren’t particularly great, but ASU’s defense has been very impressive. What is it about this scheme that has made it so effective?
“ASU plays defense just like Bobby Hurley back in his playing days. This hard-nosed and gritty unit forces teams to extend their possessions with the versatility that Hurley employs. Their frontcourt defense is imposing, with Warren Washington swatting away two shots a night and Devan Cambridge’s length disrupting inside shots. Their perimeter group is exceptional at closing drive lanes to force ill-advised passes that contribute to ASU’s seven steals a night. With the effort this unit plays with, it takes a very patient and talented offense to crack their code.”
What is ASU’s biggest weakness and how can Arizona exploit it
“ASU hasn’t struggled in many facets this year, but scoring the ball consistently has been one of them. Without their most reliable offensive weapon in Desmond Cambridge, the Sun Devils went ice cold against San Francisco in an embarrassing defeat. DJ Horne and Frankie Collins are on one night but off the other, with not enough offensive sets really including Washington in the post. Scoring consistency and diversity have held the Devils back from most likely being undefeated going into this game.”
Hurley got ejected late in the blowout loss at San Francisco–we’d want to get out of there quickly, too–but overall this seems like a slightly calmer version of the excitable coach. Has he turned over a new leaf, or has there just not been that much to freak out about?”
“Hurley has definitely toned it down on the baselines this year, but there hasn’t been too much for him to rip the tie off for just yet. The Devils have played great defense and done just enough on the offensive end to keep the always-intense Hurley relatively level-headed. With how competitive this rivalry gets though and its heightened magnitude in this year’s clash, don’t be surprised if Hurley helps out in raising the Jumbotron noise meter come New Year’s Eve.”
Prediction time: Does ASU snap a 4-game skid to Arizona or will the Wildcats get their 15th win in the last 18 meetings?
“This game is very much a meeting of opposites. The Devils slow down the game at an elite level on defense, while Arizona is one of the fastest and most efficient offensive teams in the country. Arizona State cannot afford to go cold from the floor at any point, which doomed them in both of their losses this season. It’s hard to imagine any team has the athletes to run with the Wildcats, but Arizona State was able to keep up with and eventually surpass Creighton, a team with a similar play style to Arizona. Coming off a significant letdown loss and now returning to their home floor, the Devils should keep this game close into the late minutes but at the end of the day, they won’t be able to produce enough points to go toe-to-toe with one of the best scoring teams in the country. Wildcats win, 79-68.”