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Boy, is this big.

In fact, there has never been a bigger, more important meeting in the rivalry game between the Sun Devils and the Wildcats.

Never has more been at stake.

Need proof?

With five regular season games left on the docket, ASU sits just a game back of first place in the Pac-10, a conference they have never won, a span of 30 years.

With UCLA no longer in control of their own destiny and Washington still in the crosshairs, the Sun Devils are playing for more than just tournament seeding.

The Wildcats can say the same, for the moment.

UA is the last team out of the top 25, but by no means have they been playing sub-25 — at least not recently.

UA finds itself just two games out of first place in the Pac-10.

With wins over four currently ranked top-25 teams (Gonzaga, Kansas, Washington, UCLA) you can bet a fifth would somewhat guarantee UA its 25th consecutive NCAA appearance, two behind the all-time record.

While many call March the greatest month in college basketball, the madness has really already begun.

I’ll be honest: I’ve had more trouble composing this column than I’m used to.

It has nothing to do with either my affiliation to my hometown of Tucson, where I know fans from every side of the city are on pins and needles or my obvious affiliation with ASU here.

I thought I could predict the winner but decided it wasn’t possible, even for an opinionated columnist like myself.

The teams are too even, and I know a game like this comes down to just a few, very evident keys for both teams.

For ASU: spread the ball, using sophomore James Harden as the main threat as well as the biggest decoy to junior Derek Glasser and sophomore Rihards Kuksiks, who must be proficient from behind the arc.

ASU is shooting 44.7 percent from the three point land in their last two games, thanks mainly to Glasser, who is shooting 45 percent from the 3-point line over the same span.

This is because senior Jeff Pendergraph, as important as he was against the Los Angeles schools when he combined for 20 of ASU’s 48 rebounds, does not match up well against the Wildcats.

Wildcats Junior Jordan Hill should limit Pendergraph’s ability to penetrate inside, and with 218-pound junior forward junior Chase Budinger there for support, expect Pendergraph to resort to the jumper over the slam dunk.

ASU’s defense will have to find an answer for Hill. Arguably the best big man in the conference, Hill is developing into an offensive bully underneath the basket, securing rebounds along the way.

It’s those rebounds that will make the difference. Both squads will extend the half court, using the three as a threat (Arizona with junior Nic Wise and freshman Zane Johnson), trying to go inside to their big men when double teams occur outside the paint.

Whether it’s a long rebound or a consequence of size and boxing out, the boards should tell the story Sunday.

But there’s more to play for than conference standings or even tournament seeding. If you could ever throw pride out of the window in a rivalry game, this is one of those circumstances.

Enter the city of Glendale. That’s where this year’s NCAA Western Regional is scheduled.

Should the Sun Devils (or the Wildcats) get the benefit of a high seed, at least the highest Pac-10 seed in the tournament, it could be as simple as two victories for a chance to play the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 in their own state, or for ASU, in their own backyard.

Both schools come in hot — this past weekend ASU fixed many of its offensive woes that represent the Achilles’ heel of the squad, while UA are winners of their last seven and is hoping to change a forgettable season into one fans might just want to remember.

And then it hits me. For once, all this talking doesn’t matter.

It’s what makes this one all the better: neither team will define their season on the shoulders of this game. Sunday, a match-up with UA finally is just another very important game in a season full of them.

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