2022 has been a very good year for Arizona, which since January has won 35 of 39 games as well as Pac-12 regular-season and conference tournament titles. Finishing with another win can both put a bow on this year and set the tone for 2023.
The fifth-ranked Wildcats (12-1, 1-1 Pac-12) get that chance on Saturday afternoon when they visit the Arizona State Sun Devils in Tempe.
Here’s what to watch for in the 243rd meeting of the in-state rivals, a series the UA leads 157-85 with four straight victories and wins in 14 of the last 17:
Refreshed, revised and ready
This will be Arizona’s eighth game in December but first since beating Morgan State 93-68 on Dec. 22. The Wildcats took four days off for Christmas, returning to the court on Tuesday, and since then have been both preparing for ASU as well as tackling the “laundry list” of things coach Tommy Lloyd said he wanted to address before diving back into Pac-12 play.
“You’re always working on yourself and you’re always preparing for the next opponent,” Lloyd said, declining to reveal anything on that list. “We didn’t do anything out of the ordinary that we wouldn’t normally do here. We had a little bit of a laundry list of things that I was hoping to clean up or add to the mix, that you’re just not able to do when you’re playing a stretch of games. So hopefully we’re gonna push the right buttons and be ready to play well on Saturday.”
Center Oumar Ballo, who leads the Pac-12 in rebounding (9.1 per game) and is second in scoring (17.8) to teammate Azuolas Tubelis (20.1), said Arizona has spent the last few days focused in the immediate future.
“It’s a long season, we haven’t done anything yet,” Ballo said. “So I’ll just keep focusing into what I’ve been doing and try to get better every single day. To win a conference you need to go game by game. Treat every game like a final and take care of business.”
Arizona has never lost a game at McKale Center under Lloyd, while in true road games it is 9-4 since the start of the 2021-22 season. The Wildcats have only played on the road once this season, losing 81-66 at Utah on Dec. 1 in a game that started bad and never got any better.
“Utah was a great lesson,” Ballo said. “We were not ready mentally, we were not ready physically to play against Utah. And it taught us a great lesson. We learned that you can lose to any team if you’re not ready and to take every team seriously.”
Lloyd concurred on the Utah game serving as a teaching tool.
“You just got to tell your guys, you can’t go out and play with no effort, no energy and expect things to go your way,” he said. “And you got to be aggressive. In that game we were none of those things. And we were playing catch up the whole time. We ran into a team that played a lot better than we did that day. So we can’t let that happen.”
Lloyd called winning on the road the “ultimate challenge” of college basketball, because it requires you to be at your best in order to win.
“You got to be airtight on the road,” he said. “You can’t go and you can’t be sleepwalking. You can’t go and think that you can throw the ball all over the gym.”
The book on ASU
Picked to finish seventh in the Pac-12 before the season, ASU (11-2) is one of four teams to start 2-0 in league play after beating Colorado on the road and Stanford at home earlier this month. That was in the middle of a 9-game win streak that saw the Sun Devils enter the AP Top 25 for the first time in more than a year.
Then they got crushed in their final nonconference game, losing 97-60 at San Francisco. The Devils shot a season-low 27.9 percent and allowed 57.1 percent shooting, the first opponent to shoot better than 50 percent since Arizona did last February in Tempe.
Lloyd believes that result was a fluke, and that the ASU team that has held 10 foes to below 40 percent shooting and 12 to fewer than 70 points is the real one.
“USF is obviously having a good year and they played really well that night and ASU didn’t,” Lloyd said. “I know how that feels to go on the road and just have one of those lackluster performances. I would chalk that up to an anomaly.”
ASU is 32nd in adjusted defense, per KenPom, ranking ninth overall in effective field goal defense and second in 2-point shooting D. Arizona is first in Division I in all three categories.
“They’re aggressive,” Lloyd said of ASU’s defense. “They’re handsy. They take chances, they play with great effort and they got rim protection behind all of that. So that’s usually a pretty good formula.”
ASU has 10 players averaging at least 10 minutes per game, and that doesn’t include junior forward Marcus Bagley, who scored 25 points in the Sun Devils’ first two contests but hasn’t played since.
The Sun Devils sub regularly, which helps keep up their defensive intensity and stay fresh. Arizona may need to rotate more often than normal to keep up.
“I’m just trying to win the next ballgame, and however that plays out, if that’s playing 10 guys, if that’s playing five guys, whatever it takes to win the next ballgame is what I’m going to do,” Lloyd said.
About those last meetings
Though Arizona swept ASU last season, neither was an easy win. The Wildcats beat the Sun Devils 67-56 at McKale Center on Jan. 29, their fewest points scored in a win under Lloyd, then nine days later won 91-79 at Desert Financial Arena.
The UA fell behind 14-1 just over three minutes into the game in Tempe, causing Lloyd to call a rare early timeout. Four minutes later the Wildcats were within two, taking their first lead with 8:49 left in the first half en route to a 4-point edge at halftime; the lead grew to double-digits just two minutes into the second half and the final margin ended up not looking close.
“They made some big shots early ... but it’s a long game,” Ballo said. “To be honest, I’m expecting the same thing. They’re gonna make some big shots, but we’ll just have to keep doing what we’re doing.”
ASU’s offense is very inconsistent, sitting outside the top 200 nationally in both 2- and 3-point shooting as well as from the line. It was even worse a year ago when the Sun Devils hit 13 3s against the Wildcats, third-most in any game in 2021-22.
“Both teams made runs at the start of the game and then it kind of evened out,” Lloyd said. “Luckily we were able to pull away. Sometimes that happens on the road, for whatever reason you get off to a slow start and luckily our guys were kind of able to respond with a run of their own.”