The phrase “they’re a much improved team” is sometimes used as a back-handed compliment.
When Arizona Wildcats coach Sean Miller says that about rival Arizona State, he intends all the flattery that the words denote.
“I think that not only are they much improved from a year ago, but I think they’re one of the best teams in our conference,” Miller said Tuesday on the Pac-12 basketball coaches teleconference.
Seventh-ranked Arizona (15-1 overall, 3-1 Pac-12) travels to Tempe this week for a Saturday game against Arizona State, which is a surprising 14-3, 3-1.
This comes after a 10-21 season and a prediction of an 11th-place finish in the Pac-12 by the league’s media.
While the impact of slippery-quick freshman point guard Jahii Carson was easy to anticipate, the huge growth spurt, figuratively speaking, of 7-2 junior Jordan Bachynski and the emergence of 6-6 wing Carrick Felix weren’t as predictable.
Together, Miller calls them ASU’s Big Three.
Carson is averaging 17.1 points and 5.2 assists. Opponents are daring him to shoot from beyond the arc (30.4 percent) and dribble to his left, but they still have a hard time preventing Carson from getting into the lane and getting fouled.
He has attempted 105 free throws, tied for the most in the Pac-12 with Colorado’s Spencer Dinwiddie, who has played one less game.
“He makes everybody better,” Miller said of Carson.
“An electric player. A fun guy to watch. He gets the ball out in transition. He gets his teammates easy shots, and then you look at how easy it is for him to get to the foul line and score.”
Bachynski has 12 more blocks (76) than Arizona has as a team. His average of 4.47 per game is twice as good as the next-best mark in the Pac-12.
He is averaging 10.4 points, 7.2 rebounds and shooting 61.3 percent from the field.
“On the defensive end, Bachynski is really a difference-maker,” Miller said.
“He’s a great shot-blocker and he’s become a good scorer. … He’s learned how to score with his back to the basket and really developed. I think he is one of the best players in our conference.”
Felix is the only player in the Pac-12 to be ranked in the top 10 in scoring (15.1 points) and rebounding (8.1). He is eighth in both categories.
“He’s also an all-conference player,” Miller said.
With 3-point shooters Evan Gordon and Jonathan Gilling filling out the lineup, the Sun Devils have a well-balanced starting five, although ASU lacks the kind of depth the Wildcats have.
“They are doing a great job so far this year,” Miller said of ASU after his team beat Oregon State on Saturday. “We have to have a really good week of practice leading into that game.”
The Arizona-Arizona State game begins at 12:30 p.m. on Fox Sports Net. The game is sold out at Wells Fargo Arena.