Picture the scene: It’s a frigid Saturday afternoon in January and there’s a buzz of anticipation in the air outside Wells Fargo Arena. Students are lining up outside the doors and the scalpers are back in business for the first time all season.
At first glance, the above situation seems unlikely. Though the Arizona State basketball team hosting a meaningful game in the heat of conference play may have sounded like a joke in the offseason, don’t tell that to Coach Herb Sendek and the Sun Devils.
After a surprisingly successful run through the nonconference slate, the Sun Devils continued its strong start with three victories in its first three Pac-12 games. Despite suffering a narrow loss to a surprising Oregon squad, fans in Tempe are glowing with excitement about the potential of this year’s Arizona State team.
On Saturday, the Sun Devils will face their steepest challenge yet, but its one they’ve had circled in maroon on their calendars since the beginning of the season.
At 12:30, the Sun Devils will battle the No. 7 Arizona Wildcats, who come into Tempe armed with a record of 15-1. The Wildcats represent everything the Sun Devils hope to be: a Pac-12 juggernaut, a national darling, and a talented group of young players coming into their own. Luckily, this Saturday’s game affords the Sun Devils the opportunity of seeing how they stack up, and they fully believe they will compete.
All season long, the Sun Devils have felt underestimated and unappreciated, but this can change in an instant. When the referee tosses the ball at tip-off, the records will be thrown out the window and the rivalry will commence.
For 40 minutes, the state of Arizona will be treated to basketball in its purest form, as two talented teams will battle for the right to call themselves the kings of the desert.
What more could you really ask for?
Keys to Victory
1. Never Back Down
There’s a good reason that the Wildcats are ranked at No. 7, and that’s because they can hang with the best of ‘em. On Saturday, Arizona will challenge the Sun Devils in every imaginable way, and Arizona State needs to figure out ways to respond and compete for a full game.
2. Defensive Pressure
The Sun Devils have shown the potential to be an elite defensive team, and they are buoyed by the presence of shot-blocking extraordinaire Jordan Bachynski patrolling the paint. If the guards can make halfcourt sets miserable, or at least stressful, for the Wildcats, then the chances of pulling off an upset get that much better.
3. Free Throws
Against Oregon, the Sun Devils learned a painful lesson. Arizona State shot 5-9 from the charity stripe and lost by three points. This team needs to focus on getting to the line more, and making their freebies at a higher clip because that’s the difference in close games.
Matchup to Watch: Solomon Hill vs. Carrick Felix
Two highly-regarded senior leaders will face off against one another on Saturday and that makes our matchup to watch a no-brainer. Carrick Felix has improved leaps and bounds over last season whereas Solomon Hill has been a steady presence for the Wildcats throughout his four seasons.
As his team’s second leading scorer, the Wildcats will depend on Hill to shoulder the load at Wells Fargo Arena because he’s been there and done that. Felix will have the home crowd at his beck and call waiting in anticipation for the Goodyear native to unleash one of his thunderous dunks.
Both of these guys deserve major credit for representing their schools in this rivalry game over the past four years, and Saturday will make for another riveting chapter in the books of their eventful careers.