UA head coach Sean Miller found himself in unfamiliar territory before his then-No.17 Wildcats team took on then-No.3 ASU on Dec. 30, saying it’s one of the best offensive teams he has faced throughout his coaching tenure.
Miller is in that same territory once again heading into Thursday’s much-anticipated matchup between No. 17 UA (20-6, 10-3 Pac-12) and No. 25 ASU men’s basketball (19-6, 7-6 Pac-12) at the Wells Fargo Area in front of ASU’s sold-out crowd.
After defeating the Sun Devils earlier this season 84-78, Miller said it was the team’s “best win of the season,” adding an extra layer of significance to the rivalry.
“This time, I am sure they (ASU) are very confident,” Miller said during Monday’s press conference. “I think generally speaking, because of their experience with (Shannon) Evans, (Tra) Holder and (Kodi) Justice, those guys are contagious in that they believe in themselves, and you can tell that Bobby Hurley has done a really good job of instilling that confidence in them."
ASU head coach Bobby Hurley has ASU playing some of the best basketball in conference play, getting his first home weekend sweep since he took over the program.
This is the first time ASU ranks first in scoring offense in the Pac-12 (conference and non-conference games) for as long as Miller has been UA's head coach. This is mostly due to the scoring ability of senior trio Shannon Evans II, Kodi Justice and Tra Holder.
Holder lit the Wildcats up during their last meeting, exploding for a game-high 31 points. But he tends to elevate his game on the brightest stage and has to do it once more if ASU has any chance of beating UA.
Holder ranks third in the Pac-12 with 19.3 points per game and is the highest leading scorer Miller has encountered from ASU heading into a game.
“I’ve always been the best when I play better competition,” Holder said. “That’s how I’ve been all my life. I don’t know what it is, but maybe it’s how I prepare ... Maybe I won’t have a high scoring game, maybe I’ll have 10 points, five points. As long as we win, I’m happy with that.”
ESPN’s Basketball Power Index lists ASU as the favorites, with a 54.6 percent chance of defeating its biggest rival. This will be, arguably, the toughest ASU team Miller has faced since he took over the program in 2009-10.
Hurley has yet to beat Miller since taking over the ASU program, and he has a handful to deal with considering UA's personnel.
He said he has the utmost respect for Miller and the job he has done building the program, even adding how the UA fan base never fails to remind him of his record against Miller.
“Most of his good teams just take on his personality,” Hurley said. “For me, to build what I am building, it's taking time for guys to buy and play the way we need to play ... For him, it’s even more difficult with all the change year in and year out he has, and it’s a good problem to have because you’re getting elite talent every year.”
The Wildcats have one of the top NBA prospects in freshman forward Deandre Ayton. They also have junior guard Allonzo Trier, who Hurley said has the capability of putting the team on his back, and an experienced leader in seven-foot senior center Dusan Ristic.
Despite ASU’s high-powered offense and favoritism, UA still controls the numbers game.
The Wildcats' adjusted offense (an estimate of the offensive efficiency a team would have against the average Division I defense) still ranks first in the Pac-12 with 120.8, according to KenPom.com.
They have the conference’s leading scorer in Trier (19.6), the leading rebounder in Ayton (10.7) and rank first in field goal and three-point shooting percentage in the Pac-12. Not to mention, they have controlled first place in the Pac-12 all season.
Basketball, nevertheless, is a game of matchups. In today’s game, teams are relying more on the three-point shot, guard-heavy lineups and have big men that can step away from the basket and knock down a jumper. ASU’s guards have presented opposing teams with a multitude of challenges, and they will have to rely on “GuardU” to come out victorious Thursday.
“If we get stops, (the four-guard lineup) will work to our advantage,” Holder said. “But if we keep letting them work the shot clock down ... it's going to be hard for us to stop them … but if we limit them to one shot and get stops, it's going to work to our benefit.”
Given the history of the two programs, the improvement of ASU basketball has intensified a rivalry that was merely dominated by UA's national prominence. Although the Wildcats have won five straight, ASU’s fan base has been reignited for the first time since the James Harden years.