Riding a seven-game winning streak, ASU basketball heads south to Tucson to face Arizona to open Pac-12 play and begin a three-game road trip.
9-2 Arizona State takes on 10-1 Arizona. Sounds like a competitive rivalry matchup, but Arizona’s impressive record could be misleading.
The Wildcats have the 282nd-strongest schedule of 349 schools according to Hero Sports. That’s why they don’t even crack the top 100 in RPI’s rankings despite 10 wins. They have yet to play a team in a Power 5 conference and their opponents combined record this year is 47-76.
The Wildcats were projected to finish 10th in the Pac-12 by the Coaches Poll only ahead of the two Washington schools. Their game against ASU is their first test to whether they are a surprisingly improved squad, or worthy of that dubious prediction.
Head coach Adia Barnes has three new starters this year, and they have been significant upgrades. Most significantly Washington transfer Aari McDonald. Last year, JaLea Bennett was the leader on offense with 13.9 points per game.
McDonald replaced her and has thrived thus far. She is the fourth-leading scorer in the country (24.2) and a better playmaker than Bennett. She already has more assists in 11 games than Bennett had all of last season.
On paper, the Wildcats look better than last season with better rebounding, three-point shooting and less turnovers. Again, playing against lackluster opponents.
Entering Pac-12 play, ASU has won seven straight games and is ranked 17th. ASU’s two losses came against Baylor and Louisville, both top-10 teams in the country.
The Devils held fourth quarter leads in both games, but they’ll need to do a better job of staying patient, moving the ball and taking better shots down the stretch.
ASU has a daunting stretch starting Jan 11. It plays No. 6 Stanford, No. 14 Cal, No. 5 Oregon and No. 11 Oregon State. In order for the Devils to make a big statement, they’ll need to do be sharper when closing in tight games.
Arizona State can’t be fixated on its tough upcoming schedule and take care of business on Sunday though. It needs to build up wins against inferior opponents given the Pac-12’s difficulty.
Arizona hasn’t faced a team with the balance and depth of ASU, so the Devils need to move the ball and take advantage when the game speeds up.
Arizona State has dominated this rivalry in recent years, winning 24 of the last 27 meetings. It beat Arizona three times, counting the Pac-12 Tournament, in 2017-18 by no fewer than 24 points.