Arizona vs. Arizona State — the difference is defenseby Anthony Gimino on Jan. 23, 2010, under Sports
Arizona State has won five in a row in men’s basketball against Arizona. It probably will be six by late Saturday night.
The difference is defense. The Devils play it. And play it. And play it. They play it like they enjoy it. It’s what they do. They knew it would be expected when they signed on to play for coach Herb Sendek.
That matchup zone defense? Sendek has been using that for four years, so his veterans are masters, having done nothing else during their time in Tempe. Blessed continuity.
Here’s the deal. In ASU’s five-game winning streak over Arizona, the rebounds are exactly even (161). The steals are exactly even (30). The turnovers are nearly identical — 58 for Arizona, 56 for ASU.
The difference is that the Wildcats have hardly been able to buy a bucket, especially when the game has been on the line.
Arizona has made 97 of 265 shots — a miserable 36.6 percent.
Arizona State has made 109 of 247 shots — a respectable 44.1 percent.
That’s the five-game winning streak right there.
No doubt, Arizona State is playing great defense this season. The Sun Devils lead the nation in scoring defense (54.7 points allowed per game), which is also a factor of their often slow pace. But their defensive shooting percentage backs up their stingy reputation. They allow opponents to shoot just 38.6 percent.
TC.com: Steve Rivera: Miller’s turn to take crack at ASU’s win streak
WildAboutAZCats: Lots of hoops items in Saturday’s “Nothing but the Notes” column
Arizona Republic: Plenty of notes in Doug Haller’s blog
It’s really strange to say, but ASU is the team Arizona wants to be when it grows up.
The Wildcats will get there … and then some. I’ll take Arizona’s upside under Sean Miller over the potential of Sendek’s program. But, for now, Miller is still trying to push all the right buttons on his young team.
“It is very, very hard to get our team to compete every play,” he said. “It’s the hardest team I’ve ever been around to get them to do that. The newness of everything … it’s a real challenge.”
It should be no surprise that Arizona is not a great — certainly not a consistent — defensive team.
Senior point guard Nic Wise is short and is learning his fourth defense in four years, including Miller’s man-to-man, which is, of course, 180 degrees different that the zone Arizona used last season and is a different man-to-man flavor that interim Kevin O’Neill used two seasons ago.
Junior forward Jamelle Horne isn’t consistent in any aspect of his game, so there is no reason to think he’d be consistent on defense. Sophomore guard Kyle Fogg is a willing defender but isn’t very strong. The freshmen are, well, freshmen.
Freshmen don’t usually play much defense anyway, because they never had to in high school or when trying to showcase their scoring on the AAU meat market.
“It’s a huge adjustment, and we don’t have the cushion of having a lot of players who have been here to show them the way,” Miller said.
Miller said he and his coaching staff continue to emphasize defense, which was Miller’s calling card at Xavier.
“I would give Arizona State one of many compliments … that’s a problem they don’t have,” Miller said of effort on defense. “They compete hard on every possession and they play with great togetherness.”
And that right there is pretty much why Arizona State is a 10- to 12-point favorite Saturday night. But the Sun Devils better take advantage while they can.
Arizona is going to better defensively a month from now when the teams meet in Tucson (Feb. 21).
A year from now, when the freshmen are sophomores and far more physical and tough they are now, Miller probably won’t be complaining too much about his team’s defense. In the meantime, get ready for a six-game losing streak to the Devils.
“I really believe, and it should be obvious to everyone, that our team has gotten better,” Miller said.
“It hasn’t been by leaps and bounds, but very slowly … and you can make the case right now we’re playing as well as we have.”