(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
After last week’s win over Colorado, Arizona State head coach Bobby Hurley fired up his team by saying “If anyone wants to win in Arizona, they better go to f***ing Tucson.” Now, it will be his team’s turn to try and win down south, when the Devils travel to the University of Arizona for the first round of the state rivalry on Thursday night.
The Wildcats, under longtime head coach Sean Miller, have continued their recent dominance this season. Arizona has not lost since Dec. 3, claiming nine straight victories, including four in conference.
Despite his emphatic comment, Hurley had many praises for the Arizona program, which has made the NCAA tournament in all but two seasons since 1984.
“When you watch those guys on film, they’re very active and they’re
in great defensive position,” Hurley said. “They have good balance. There’s a force inside and then they have really good guard play. They’re a very complete team.”
The calling card for Arizona has been its defense, which leads the Pac-12 in points allowed. ASU, meanwhile, is at the opposite end of the spectrum, giving up 22 more points per game than the Wildcats.
Arizona has been able to excel inside and out, ranking best in opponent three-point shooting and grabbing the most defensive boards. That ability to thrive on the boards while defending the three leaves opponents with few options.
The Devils, who lead the Pac-12 in threes attempted and are second in makes per game, with be challenged to find new ways to score with Arizona aggressive perimeter defense.
“If the shots aren’t falling, we gotta be able to find another way to change the game,” ASU junior guard Kodi Justice said. “If that’s getting in, getting turnovers, getting to the basket and to the foul line, we’ve got to find other ways to win the game.”
Playing a more inside-minded game may be the answer for the Sun Devils. Arizona, like several teams, has a size advantage over the Devils. Freshman Lauri Markkanen and junior Dusan Ristic, both listed at seven feet tall, have started all 17 games for Arizona.
Despite the size, the Wildcats still only rank 10th in blocked shots, just behind Arizona State. The Devils’ aggressive guard rotation can put pressure on the rim and slip in through the tall trees, but they cannot be afraid to go all out. Guys like Tra Holder and Shannon Evans are great attackers, but the best outcomes come from them drawing fouls.
Arizona’s defense won’t make those simplistic mistakes. The Wildcats only allow 9.9 free throws per game by their opponents, far less than what ASU likes to get from the line.
The Sun Devils clearest path to victory is to hit the rim as hard as possible, while also being open to challenging the Wildcats perimeter defense. When ASU hits a famine from deep, it might make sense for them to dial back the three-point threat. Instead, they need to keep shooting. The more space they give and the more they spread Arizona’s defense, the better chance they’ll have at converting at the rim.
The odds are long for Arizona State, especially on a hostile floor, but the Devils quick, high-volume style has helped them through tough situations in the past. Now they just must prove that they can win in Tucson.
The game tips off at 7 P.M. and can be seen nationally on ESPN2.