In October, I asked senior center Jordan Bachynski if there was a game he had circled on this year’s ASU men’s basketball schedule. He answered instantly and instinctively.
“Arizona,” he said, without blinking. “Both Arizona games.”
The opportunity to beat UA in any sport is paramount for Sun Devil athletics programs and individual Sun Devil athletes alike, and seniors like Bachynski know it better than most.
But what Bachynski didn’t know back in October is that this Sun Devil basketball team would get the opportunity to pull off the biggest upset in NCAA college basketball this season and the biggest upset in program history when it faces No. 1 UA at the McKale Center Thursday.
Yes, the biggest win in the history of a basketball program that has been around since 1920.
This will be the ninth time that an ASU basketball team has had a chance to take down the No. 1 team in the nation. ASU is 1-7 in its previous eight attempts (three of which were against UA), its only win coming at Oregon State in 1981. At that time, the Sun Devils were ranked No. 5 in the nation and boasted a starting five who were all future-first- or second-round NBA draft picks.
Things are different this time around, but this gives Bachynski, who is 1-5 in his career in games against UA, the opportunity to put a feather in the cap of a senior season where he will break the record for blocks in the conference.
But to say a win at the McKale Center on Thursday won’t come easy would be a gross understatement. No one is giving the Sun Devils a chance to get even close to the undefeated Wildcats, who have set a program record themselves by rattling off 17 straight wins to start the season.
UA has beaten then-No. 6 Duke at Madison Square Garden, Michigan in Ann Arbor and No. 25 UCLA at Pauley Pavilion. Not to mention, the Wildcats boast an average victory margin of 19 points.
And it isn’t a one-man show, either. UA’s biggest strength lies in the fact that its offensive attack is extremely balanced. All five Wildcat starters were in double figures against Duke and in the wins over UCLA and Michigan, the Wildcats had at least four players in double figures.
Will the Sun Devils beat UA? Realistically, probably not. But they have more of a chance than pundits are giving them.
ASU will need to limit UA’s easy buckets (zero would be ideal) and it will also need UA to miss a lot of shots.
The latter might not be as wishful as one might think. ASU has held its opponents to 43 percent from the field and with Bachynski blocking an average of almost five shots per game, the Sun Devils could limit the Wildcats’ impressive front court.
If ASU can also manage to hold junior guard Nick Johnson, who has stepped up in big games this season and who always comes out against the Sun Devils, to fewer than 10 points while out-rebounding the Wildcats, it should — or at least could — be a close game going into the final minutes.
On the offensive end, ASU will have to shoot the ball incredibly well like it has in most of its wins this season. Beyond that, redshirt sophomore point guard Jahii Carson will have to have one of his best performances of his NCAA career and use his craft and quickness to get to the basket and suck in some of UA’s seemingly boundless length up front. If successful, Carson will free up senior guard Jermaine Marshall and junior forward Jonathan Gilling from the 3-point line (whether they can connect could be the difference) and Bachynski for easy looks.
Another x factor could be coaching experience. In his career, coach Herb Sendek has beaten two No. 1 ranked teams, both while at North Carolina State. In 2004 his Wolfpack took down a Duke team that was ranked No. 1 and went on to make the Final Four, and in 1998, Sendek’s Wolfpack squad beat North Carolina, which also went on to make it to the Final Four. If Herb plays his cards right this time, he could find himself with a third huge upset under his belt.
Last season ASU was on the bubble, and many had them as one of the last four out. This was mainly attributed to the weak nonconference schedule, but Sendek made sure that would not be a problem this season as the Sun Devils faced a more intimidating nonconference slate and went 11-2.
However, a close win against UNLV (10-6), which has also lost to UCSB, Air Force and Nevada, isn’t looking quite as strong and another nail biter win over then-No. 25 Marquette (10-7) might not be enough to convince the selection committee, either. Meanwhile, a win on the road over DePaul (9-8) is looking less and less impressive and the Sun Devils are still left in dire need of a statement win.
Beating UA won’t automatically send the Sun Devils dancing, but it will help make a great case for them and it would be a crucial bubble decider in a strong conference where wins come at a premium.
If nothing else, a Sun Devil win would at least ensure that we won’t have to watch Johnson (and the rest of the Wildcats) gloating one more time.
Reach the columnist at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @NPMendoza