Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Rivalry gap? Arizona restoring supremacy against Arizona State

Nick Johnson drives for a layup against Arizona State last season. Photo by Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Nick Johnson drives for a layup against Arizona State last season. Photo by Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Stanford for about a decade. Washington, often. UCLA, always.

UNLV, back in the day. Duke, whenever and wherever.

The Arizona Wildcats have had their A-1 basketball rivalries for more than a quarter century, but the series with Arizona State has only occasionally simmered.

The Sun Devils recently raised the flames by winning five in a row, sweeping two games in 2008 and all three in 2009, taking advantage of UA’s extended coaching transition and the presence of all-star James Harden on the roster.

Since then, at least from an Arizona perspective, consider order to be restored.

The Wildcats have won five of the past six meetings, with each of the wins coming by double-digit points. The average margin of victory in those games has been 15.

The teams play Thursday night at McKale Center.

The oddsmakers say to expect more of the same; Arizona is favored to win by about 12 points.

“You have to be careful making one game bigger than the next, but, make no mistake, we understand the significance of the Arizona-Arizona State rivalry,” said UA coach Sean Miller.

“It’s a big game for us. It’s a game our fans care a lot about. It’s a home conference game, and we have to take advantage of our home court, like all teams in our conference. If you don’t, it really puts pressure on you through this 18-game schedule.”

Speaking of 18, the top-ranked and undefeated Wildcats will be going for win No. 18 to start the season.

“Each game is just as big as the next,” freshman forward Aaron Gordon said. “If you look at it that way, I don’t really buy into rivalries as much.”

Arizona-Arizona State hoops hasn’t been much of a rivalry — before the Sun Devils’ recent five-game streak in the series, UA had won 24 of 25 games against ASU — but it’s had its classic moments in the past decade or so.

An Arizona favorite: Lute Olson, in 2004 in Tempe, responding to jeers from the ASU student section, pointing upward to the Wildcats’ big lead on the scoreboard.

That’s history, though.

This Arizona State team is 13-4 and is capable of derailing UA’s momentum train. The trio of electric point guard Jahii Carson, shot-blocking center Jordan Bachynski and hot-shooting guard Jermaine Marshall is plenty for the Wildcats to worry about.

That’s three interesting matchups right there.

Carson vs. T.J. McConnell — McConnell is noted as a defensive pest, although not an elite athlete, and preventing Carson from getting into the lane for a shot or a kick is no easy task for anybody. Carson is averaging 18.1 points and 4.6 assists, but keep an eye on his shooting.

He’s at 34.5 percent (19 of 55) through four conference games, including a 4-of-13 effort from 3-point range.

“No player is perfect through 30-plus games,” Miller said.

“He’s experienced enough and talented enough that whatever slump or brief stint he’s in where maybe the ball doesn’t go in, that can change very quickly. We don’t want it to change on us.”

Marshall vs. Aaron Gordon/Nick Johnson — Gordon has the size edge over the 6-4 Marshall, and Johnson is Arizona’s best perimeter defender. Tough matchups all around for Marshall, a graduate transfer from Penn State who has scored at least 25 points in three of the past six games. Miller compares his impact at ASU to the one Arizona received from a graduate transfer last season, Mark Lyons.

“He’s one of our conference’s best guards,” Miller said of Marshall, who has made 46 of 100 3-point attempts. “Statistically speaking, when Arizona State is at its best, he seems to have a big night. … He’s not just a shooter, he’s someone who can score.”

(This is assuming Marshall plays. As of Wednesday, he was questionable because of a groin injury.)

Bachynski vs. Kaleb Tarczewski — This is year two of this matchup of 7-footers. Give Tarczewski an edge last season, with 14 points and 16 rebounds in 48 minutes across two games. Bachynski had 11 points and seven rebounds in 52 minutes.

Few Pac-12 players have improved as much from their freshman season as Bachynski has, though. He’s averaging 12.7 points and 9.4 rebounds as a senior, and it won’t be long before he breaks the conference’s record for career blocked shot. Bachynski is 19 behind ex-Cat Anthony Cook’s record of 278.

“He anchors their defense,” Miller said. “He continues to be more sure of himself. You can’t underestimate what he’s able to do.”

It would be quite a rivalry shot if Arizona State were to upset the No. 1 team in the nation in a hostile arena, and, no question, the Devils have to shoot well to have a chance to do it. They take the second-most 3-point shots in the league (21.5 per game) and make a healthy 39.2 percent.

But if they’re not shooting well against Arizona’s sticky defense — the Cats allow opponents to hit just 28.0 percent from behind the arc — well, the Wildcats should efficiently put another in the win column against ASU while moving on to next Thursday’s home game against a team that is becoming a new, true rival — Colorado.

Search site | Terms of service