The Arizona Wildcats wound up the pre-conference season on an eight-game winning streak. Early season losses to Samford and Nebraska were the only blemishes on a 10-2 record that left them ranked No. 34 in the RPI. Now, it’s on to face one of the toughest conferences in the country.
The Wildcats will start things off in Tempe on Thursday before traveling to Los Angeles to face USC on Saturday.
Arizona at ASU
ASU Record: 8-3, 0-0 Pac-12
ASU RPI: 47
The Sun Devils aren’t just opening up Pac-12 season on Thursday, it will be their home opener.
ASU spent the preseason on the road because of planned renovations at Wells Fargo Arena, even though they never actually happened, per azcentral’s Jeff Metcalfe.
Both teams faced one ranked team in the run-up to conference play. The Wildcats faced off against then-No. 2 Nebraska in San Diego, while the Sun Devils went up against No. 24 Louisville in a true road match. They both lost to their ranked opponents in 1-3 fashion.
The lone common opponent for the teams was Kansas, which both handled in straight-set victories. Arizona faced the Jayhawks in Lawrence, while ASU went up against them in Las Vegas.
The Sun Devils are running a 6-2 system, which Arizona head coach Dave Rubio says is more difficult to defend. Senior Callie Jones and sophomore Noa Miller are handling setting duties in the two-setter system. Jones is averaging 6.78 assists per set and Miller is adding 3.84.
Scoring is led by Andrea Mitrovic at 3.63 kills per set with a .310 hitting percentage and Jada Burse with 3.20 k/s. Three other players are averaging at least two kills per set: Claire Kovensky (2.87), Iman Isanovic (2.24) and Ivana Jeremic (2.17).
Jeremic and Kovensky had the highest kills per set last season of the returnees. The problem for both has been getting on the court. Jeremic has appeared in only seven matches this season, while Kovensky has been on the court for eight.
The problem is bigger than just Kovensky and Jeremic, though. The Sun Devils have had difficulty getting everyone on the court at the same time and getting a stable starting group largely due to injuries.
ASU has only four players who have appeared in all 11 matches, including senior libero Courtney Leffel. No one has started more than six matches. Jones and Kovensky lead in starts with six each.
Rubio doesn’t think it’s an issue for the ASU offense, though.
“The one kid, that transfer from Kansas (Burse), has been kind of in and out of the lineup,” he said. “And I think she’s the most physical, talented kid that they have. And the film that I’ve been watching, she’s been kind of in and out of the lineup, and I’m not sure what dictates when she goes in and when she doesn’t, but they have enough players in the program that they’ve got really good depth over there on the pins. I think they’re a little thin in the middle. I don’t know that because I only see the same two middles. But right now they’ve got the right bodies, and they’re certainly going to be very, very competitive within the conference.”
Arizona has dominated the rivalry for the last several years. The senior class has lost only one match—a five-set affair on Nov. 26, 2016—to the Sun Devils in their time in Tucson. Over that run, the Wildcats have dropped a total of five sets in three years and they swept the Sun Devils twice last season.
Rubio thinks the Sun Devils are the strongest that they’ve been since ASU head coach Sanja Tomasevic took over after the 2016 season, and that they have a more physical style of play than the Wildcats. His players are just looking to continue their winning ways against the in-state rival.
“They’re our rivals, and our senior class has had a pretty good streak against them, especially at their house,” senior setter Julia Patterson said. “And I think that we just want to continue that and make sure that they know that we own Phoenix and not ASU.”
How and when to watch
ASU and Arizona will get under way at 7 p.m. MST on Thursday, Sept. 26 at Wells Fargo Arena. The match will be aired on Pac-12 Arizona. Fans can also follow along on Arizona Live Stats.
Arizona at No. 25 USC
USC Record: 6-5, 0-1 Pac-12
USC RPI: 60
USC was picked to finish second in the Pac-12’s preseason poll, but hasn’t looked like the second-best team leading up to conference play. While they have played four teams in the top 50 of the RPI, they have lost all four matches.
Things didn’t get much better when Pac-12 play kicked off for the Women of Troy on Wednesday night, either. USC went to Pauley Pavilion and lost in five sets to UCLA.
Khalia Lanier is living up to her billing, though. The senior outside hitter is averaging 4.18 kills per set, making her one of only six players in the conference averaging over four kills per set. Kalen Owens isn’t too far behind, averagine 3.06 k/s for USC.
Much like ASU, though, some of USC’s top performers have sat out multiple matches in the early going. Lanier has appeared in only seven of the team’s 11 matches. No one has started more than five matches, with Lanier being one of five players on the court at the start of at least five contests.
Unlike their streak against ASU, the Wildcats will need to turn things around if they want to walk away with a victory in Los Angeles. The Women of Troy swept the series last season. The Wildcats last beat USC on Oct. 6, 2017 in a three-setter at McKale Center.
How and when to watch
Note: All RPI numbers used in this article are unofficial and taken from Figstats. The unoffical RPI is updated after matches conclude around the country, so it can fluctuate rapidly. RPI numbers in this article were accurate as of 10:00 p.m. MST on Sept. 25, 2019.