For the past four decades, college basketball in the state of Arizona has ran through the Sonoran Desert in Tucson. A win for ASU basketball on Saturday night would validate their early-season movement to change that narrative.
Prior to every tip-off for an Arizona basketball game at the McKale Center, both the fans and opposition are treated with a promo headlined by the likes of established NBA greats in Steve Kerr, Sean Elliott and Andre Iguodala along with future professional stars in Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Aaron Gordon and Lauri Markkanen.
It outlines the rich history and tradition of college hoops in Tucson, one that dawns 19 Sweet Sixteen appearances, nine Elight Eights and four Final Fours to go along with a national championship banner from 1997.
At the end of the video, all the past student-athletes come together to echo a phrase that, depending on who you’re associated with, could give you goosebumps or nightmares for the ensuing 40 minutes of that night’s game:
This is Arizona.
Since Lute Olson took the reigns of the program in 1983, the University of Arizona has widely been considered the “big brother” to Arizona State in college basketball, having held a curtain of domination that has separated a national powerhouse from a program that’s amounted just five NCAA Tournament appearances since 1991.
Sean Miller’s teams have carried on that tradition over the past nine years, only dropping four games to the Sun Devils in that time frame, including one lone loss at McKale Center in 2010.
In his first two years as head coach of ASU, Bobby Hurley has yet to pick up a win against his in-state rival, with the average margin of defeat being just under 20 points in his first four shots at the Wildcats. Things, in the past, have been downright ugly for the “little brother.”
The past, however, merely holds things that its title consists of: the past. So, what does the future hold in this storied rivalry?
Right now, it’s entirely up for grabs.
For the first time since 1995, the Sun Devils and the Wildcats will both be ranked in a regular season match-up. This time, however, a crack has appeared in the mold of normal occurrence: the Sun Devils are undefeated after non-conference play, being ranked third in the nation while three straight losses in the Bahamas have derailed the 17th-ranked Wildcats from reaching the championship level of play that many expected to see at the beginning of the season.
In this non-conference span, the ASU has dominated the brunt of their opponents, boasting the nation’s fourth best scoring offense all while winning all but one game by double figures. On the flip side, Arizona has shown weaknesses on both ends of the floor, often finding themselves playing at the pace of their opponents for most of their non-conference outings.
Despite the variant paths of both squads, Arizona is currently a five-point favorite over the Sun Devils in tonight’s matchup at the McKale Center. To the average fan, this opening line would make no sense at all.
Except, history allows it to make perfect sense.
“We’ve had a couple of tough years in the Pac-12, and you got to reflect on that,” Hurley noted after Thursday’s practice. “You have to remember back to some of these games as you prepare for this season.
Hurley’s first two seasons in Tempe had been unable to produce much promise in terms of wins and losses. The Sun Devils had gone 30-34 in both of these seasons, finishing 11th and eighth in the Pac-12 during those respective seasons.
Meanwhile, their neighbors in Tucson had gone 57-14, advancing to the NCAA Tournament twice while capturing both the Pac-12 regular season and tournament championships for the second time in the past three seasons.
History, especially in the recent past, is hard to break. However, this season, with a team driven by a Bobby Hurley level of competitive fire, has put the Sun Devils, for some, at or above the level of Arizona in terms of national prowess.
“Basketball, in Arizona, you got to go through Tucson,” Evans said. “Now, they’re not passing the torch to us, but we’re in the same room with them, at least.”
“They’re still a great team,” Justice added. “But to be able to look and see that we’re not just nationally ranked higher than they are, but we’ve been playing really well as a team, it’s been great to experience that as a hometown kid.”
It’s not even the start of 2018, and the most important game in the fight for a Pac-12 championship may very well take place Saturday night. Here are three keys that the Sun Devils will have to follow if they want to flip the script of Arizona basketball with an upset victory in Tucson.
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Get DeAndre Ayton Out of the Game
Arguably the most dominant force in college basketball may be facing down the Sun Devils on Saturday night, and he very well may not be able to be stopped.
DeAndre Ayton, a 7’1″, 250-pound freshman from Nassau, Bahamas, has been a monster down low for the Wildcats to begin the season. He’s averaging a double-double at 19.5 points and 11.4 rebounds per game, showing strong efficiencies to score in the low-post and from the outside while consistently cleaning up on the defensive glass.
The future NBA lottery pick has posed a threat for all teams that have faced the Wildcats this season, and his production has been something that has constantly given opposing coaches headaches while putting together a game-plan.
“Coaches have nightmares about [him],” said Hurley. “You can’t give him a steady diet of anything defensively.”
All 13 of Arizona’s opponents have thrown different looks at Ayton, all to no avail. He’s shown to be an excellent passer while being double-teamed in the post and will make you pay if you force him to take mid-range jump-shots.
So, how do you neutralize his output?
Get him out of the game.
So far this season, the Sun Devils have gotten to the free-throw line a total of 359 times. As a basketball team, ASU prides themselves on being able to make more free throws than their opponents attempt, and they’ve been capable of doing just that thanks to new threats on the block in Romello White and De’Quon Lake.
Right from the tip, the Sun Devil guards will have to attack the rim and feed their low-post options in order to draw contact from Ayton on shot attempts. In Arizona’s last game against UConn, Ayton was limited to just seven minutes of action in the first half, an effort that helped the Huskies hang tight in the McKale Center for 35 minutes of the game.
By taking Ayton out of the game, the Sun Devils will specifically be able to key in on Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins without the threat of a low-post advantage. This would allow ASU to run their trademarked “Guard U” lineup all while being able to establish a quick start and early place that would certainly work to their advantage.
Don’t Play at a Half-Court Pace
The Sun Devils have shown to be at their best this season when they’ve been able to get out and run in transition. When they create turnovers and push the pace off of defensive rebounds, no team has been able to stop them in the open floor.
The Wildcats, on the other hand, play a completely different style of basketball. Sean Miller’s group plays a “pack-line” half-court defensive set, one that forces teams to play deep into the shot-clock while being forced to consistently make long-range jumpshots.
Although it may seem that may work in favor of ASU, it’s very difficult to win a game by shooting jumpers in the half-court for a full 40 minutes. During the late minutes of second halves, Arizona’s size has often worn out teams that adapt to this grind-fest by going on huge runs that can turn a close game into a blowout.
“They’re big, obviously,” said Justice. “If we don’t rebound the ball, they’re going to get easy buckets and we’re not going to be able to play [at] our fast pace.”
ASU, contrastingly, has shown the ability to tire out their opponents by challenging them to a track meet, a feat that once again may work to their advantage. If ASU can establish their own pace of the game, something that Arizona has struggled with in non-conference play, it could open up more rotations for clean looks on the offensive end.
By doing so, the Sun Devils could quickly exhaust the Wildcat defense and most importantly, the effect of the McKale Center crowd.
Withstand the Shifts in Momentum
Basketball is a game of runs. Like Allen Fieldhouse, the McKale Center houses 15,545 screaming fans on a nightly basis, a home-court advantage that will inevitably give the Wildcats a sequence of pushes at some point during the game.
Thankfully, the Sun Devils are well-prepared.
Against Kansas, ASU immediately fell in a 15-2 hole three minutes into the game. While facing Xavier in Las Vegas, the Devils similarly found themselves down 13 in a game that looked like would be blown open by halftime. They fought back in both of these instances, and have shown the toughness to fight off adversity.
They’ll need it more than ever on Saturday night.
With the anticipation and the stakes at hand, the crowd in Tucson will be even rowdier, an idea that the Devils are already expecting.
“This isn’t a regular game,” Evans said about the matchup. “It’s bigger than basketball; it’s for everything.”
“[We have to] stay level-headed and stay together,” said Justice. “You have to stay together and fight through adversity.”
In the past, a Sun Devil group may have gone into McKale Center and folded under the microscopic pressure. The buzz around Tempe has been at an all-time high, yet some still feel the Sun Devils haven’t proven their worth. They’re still the “little brother” in terms of the historic factor.
This year’s team, however, is just different. They’ve answered the bell whenever they’ve needed to, and they’ve played with an edge that has them still out looking for something to prove.
It’s a team that’s truly embodied their head coach.
“I feel like we’re still not getting [our] respect,” Evans said. “I’ve been an underdog my whole life, so this is nothing new.”
That “underdog” mentality is what carries champions of the past, present and future. It’s what may help the Sun Devils make the stand they’re looking to make against their “big brother.”
The Sun Devils and the Wildcats will tip off at the McKale Center in Tucson at 7 p.m MT, where you can catch the game live on Pac-12 Network.
All quotes in this article were obtained firsthand by Devils in Detail unless otherwise noted.