In the preseason, everyone expected a team from Arizona to be among college basketball’s best. If you said that a team from the Grand Canyon State was undefeated and ranked in the top 5 in mid-December, no one would bat an eye while thinking Sean Miller’s Wildcats were off to the hot start we all expected.
Instead, it’s the Arizona State Sun Devils that are the talk of the hoops landscape. Not only has Arizona State been a pleasant surprise, Arizona has been a borderline disaster, having already lost three times and needed overtime to top an uninspiring UNLV team. The in-state rivals couldn’t be stringing along more dissimilar narratives at this point in the season.
With Pac-12 play on the horizon, we’re at a perfect point to dissect the seasons being built by each club. If the Sun Devils are for real, and if the Wildcats continue to fall short of their lofty expectations, the conference championship is firmly up for grabs, with the two Arizona schools positioned to lead the race to the finish.
The Sun Devils are one of only six remaining unbeatens in college basketball and have played the toughest schedule to date of any of team in that group, per KenPom:
So far, Arizona State’s resume hinges on four solid victories. The Sun Devils swept two games played in Las Vegas over Kansas State and Xavier, hanging 102 points on the Musketeers en route to the latter win. Last weekend, Arizona State beat St. John’s in Los Angeles and topped Kansas at Phog Allen Fieldhouse just two days later. The victory over the Jayhawks has finally sparked some national buzz, as it might be the best win by any team of the young college basketball season. The Sun Devils jumped to fifth in the AP Poll and even received (gulp) first place votes. Arizona State hadn’t been ranked in the AP Top 25 since 2009 and hadn’t cracked the top 5 of that poll since 1981!
Given what we’ve seen, the praise is deserved. Bobby Hurley has the Sun Devils firing on all cylinders. Arizona State has the 5th best offense nationally per KenPom, scoring more than 91 points per contest. The Devils offensive attack has been aggressive, posting the 2nd best free throw rate in the nation. Only five power conference teams score a greater percentage of their points at the foul line than Arizona State. That effective slashing opens up shots on the perimeter, where Arizona State is draining a red hot 42.7 percent of its three-point attempts. In Arizona State’s two biggest wins, the Devils have won with knockdown shooting, making 13 of 27 threes against Xavier and 14 of 28 at Kansas.
The Arizona State backcourt is comprised of two senior guards who have been magnificent. Tra Holder has been one of America’s best this season, averaging 21.6 points, 5.6 rebounds, 5.2 assists, and 1.4 steals per game. He’s shown the ability to score or operate the offense for his teammates to find opportunities. He’s also a deadeye shooter, making 47 percent of his outside shots. Shannon Evans, is shooting 45 percent from outside the arc on more than seven attempts per game. Collectively, the Arizona State guards are taking 13.3 outside shots per game and sinking 6.1 on average, making them seem like a junior set of Splash Brothers.
I should mention, at some point, that Arizona State’s sixth man is named Remy Martin. Cheers!
Now, it remains to be seen if they can keep up that level of shooting for an entire season. Holder made just 36 percent each of the past two seasons, attempting about four per game. Evans’ best season beyond the arc was just 38 percent and came three years ago when he played against lesser competition at Buffalo.
If the hot shooting regresses, as you’d expect, Arizona State doesn’t necessarily have a reliable Plan B for scoring or offensive production. Six Sun Devils are scoring more than 9.2 points per game so far this season, but only seven Arizona State players are ever seeing the floor. Only seven coaches are playing their bench less possible minutes than Bobby Hurley. This team likely can’t survive foul trouble, an injury, or a team-wide case of the sniffles. Moving forward, if Arizona State is going to compete for the Pac-12 title, they’ll need to continue to manufacture offense by reaching the free throw line. Even if the outside shooting goes cold, racking up points at the foul line can keep Arizona State competitive.
Further south in the state (and yes I checked Google Maps for Tucson and Tempe), the Wildcats’ fanbase has been nearly suicidal thanks to three early losses by a team that started ranked #2 in the preseason polls. The good news for Arizona is that the bad news is limited and explainable.
The problems started, and essentially ended, with the Wildcats’ trip to the Bahamas for the Battle 4 Atlantis (uh excuse me, the BAD BOY MOWERS BATTLE 4 ATLANTIS). All three Arizona losses came at that tournament in a three day span. Not to mention, the field at the tournament was no cupcake brigade. Each of the teams that beat Arizona are currently ranked in the top 75 of the KenPom rankings. Losing to top 100 competition in a hotel ballroom thousands of miles from home is not unthinkable.
When Arizona returned stateside, the Wildcats needed overtime to top UNLV. All of these lackluster performances shared a common denominator. Arizona’s energetic sophomore Rawle Alkins missed the Wildcats first eight games due to injury. Even while battling foul trouble in his first game back versus Alabama, Alkins showcased the fiery tenacity that he brought to the court last season. With Alkins back in the mix, Arizona beat a good Alabama team in front of a concerned home crowd in Tucson.
Defense has been the biggest part of the Wildcats’ struggle so far. Arizona ranks in below the median in college basketball in forcing turnovers, allowing three-pointers, and sending teams to the free throw line. For a team with as much talent as the Wildcats, that is unacceptable. Senior point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright plays smart, but has been exposed for his deficiencies. He’s listed, very generously, at 5’11 and 170 pounds. Both of those numbers are exaggerated by a good 5 percent and it’s showed, with bigger guards eager to take advantage.
Deandre Ayton has impressed NBA scouts, putting himself firmly in position to be the top pick in next June’s draft, but has not shown the motor or instincts to be a defensive contributor. The Wildcats’ starting lineup also features Brandon Randolph, another freshman learning the ropes, and Dusan Ristic, a 7-footer playing uncomfortably next to Ayton. All in all, Arizona has not found a recipe for success on that end of the floor. Even with Alkins back in the win over the Crimson Tide, Arizona allowed 1.12 points per possession and a total of 82 points on the game.
What Happens Next?
With Alkins back and a notable win taken care of, Sean Miller and Arizona have at least stopped the figurative bleeding. Arizona will play three games in six days against teams that won’t roll over, but shouldn’t be a real threat to add another loss to the Wildcats’ ledger (New Mexico, North Dakota State, UConn). Arizona State will be tested by Vanderbilt and breeze past Longwood and Pacific in the same time frame.
The next game on each school’s schedule? You guessed it. A showdown between the two in Tucson on December 30 (with a reasonable 9 PM ET tip time!). The Sun Devils should enter that match-up undefeated and ranked in the top five, causing the Arizona crowd to be as hostile as any we’ll see this season. If Arizona State can come away from that game with a win, it would be in prime position to win the Pac-12 and start to hear buzz about being a top seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats won’t let that happen without a fight, determined to remain the big brothers in the rivalry. A win over their in-state enemies might be just what Arizona needs to course correct.
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, SALTMoney.org, Larry Brown Sports, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. If you have any suggestions, tips, ideas, or questions, email them to firstname.lastname@example.org
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