No. 5 Arizona is riding high as it enters the bulk of the Pac-12 Conference season, starting Saturday afternoon at defensive-minded state rival Arizona State in Tempe.
The Wildcats (12-1, 1-1 Pac-12) sustained their lone loss on a poor shooting night at Utah on Dec. 1 but otherwise have been a picture of stability with pillars Azuolas Tubelis and Oumar Ballo on the inside. They are first nationally in shooting percentage (53.2) and second in scoring at 90.2 points per game.
“I don’t think we have come close to our ceiling yet,” Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said.
The Sun Devils (11-2, 2-0) started with modest expectations — they were picked seventh in the Pac-12 media preseason poll — but surprisingly rose to No. 25 in the AP poll before suffering a 97-60 loss at San Francisco before the Christmas break. That halted a nine-game winning streak and ended their first AP ranking in slightly more than two years.
ASU was without Desmond Cambridge Jr. (non-COVID illness) that night, but he is expected back Saturday. He has scored at least 19 points in three of his past four games.
Mostly, though, this early conference showdown shapes up to be an intriguing matchup between Arizona’s high-scoring big men and ASU’s stout defense.
Tubelis, who is averaging 20.1 points and 8.7 rebounds per game, is crafty around the basket and lethal in transition. Ballo is a physical force in the paint, averaging 17.8 points and 9.1 rebounds, while shooting 74.2 percent from the field.
“These guys, they really run and they post up really quickly,” Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley said. “You can see their ability to know where they are on the floor and to find each other, and you see the basketball IQ they have.
“They can hurt you in so many ways. You have to try to take some things away, but you know you’re going to give up some things in the process.”
ASU counters with a defense holding opponents to 64.1 points per game and 36.7 percent shooting. Seven-footer Warren Washington anchors the interior, with help off the bench from Alonzo Gaffney. The Cambridge brothers — Desmond and Devan — are active wings who will try to disrupt Arizona’s entry passes.
“We need to get back to playing defense the way we’re capable of,” Hurley said. “That enables us to run better offense. A lot hinges on how we’re guarding and our commitment to doing that.”
Before the Devils’ loss to San Francisco, none of their first 12 opponents scored more than 71 points. Arizona has scored more than 80 in all but two outings.
Earlier this season, Hurley called this his most balanced team in eight seasons at ASU. That is seen on offense, where Arizona State has five players averaging in double figures, but none higher than DJ Horne’s 12.5 points per game.
Arizona will be facing one of its most hostile crowds of the season, and Lloyd notes his team is 0-1 in road games.
“You can’t go out and play with no effort or no energy and expect things to go your way,” he said, referring to the 81-66 loss at Utah. “You’ve got to stay aggressive.”
Arizona has won the past four meetings against ASU, including 91-79 in Tempe last season.
–Field Level Media