Rivals No. 22 Arizona and Arizona State have met in back-to-back Pac-12 games. They have bookended the conference season. But they have never done this.
For the first time since the Wildcats and Sun Devils joined the Pac-12 in 1978, they will finish their home-and-home series six games into league play, crunch time be darned.
It is not the way a rivalry should work, Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley suggested as the Sun Devils (11-7, 2-3 Pac-12) prepared to host the Wildcats (13-5, 3-2) in the return match Saturday.
“I do wish we would play Arizona the last game of the season every year,” said Hurley, whose Duke teams traditionally met North Carolina in the final regular-season game.
“When the rivalry is very intense … I’m not saying we’ve closed the gap with Arizona. We’ve been good the last two years. I think it is deserving of being that last game.”
Arizona State swept the series last season, but the Wildcats have won seven of the last nine after a convincing 75-47 victory in Tucson on Jan. 4.
The Wildcats used their size advantage to take a 49-35 rebounding edge and had a 50-18 advantage in points in the paint as Arizona State big man Romello White played through an ankle injury. Arizona center Chase Jeter missed last week with a back injury, and his status is unknown.
“Our rebounding was in place, and that’s where it starts for us,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said.
Although that was the Wildcats’ only victory in a five-game stretch, they regained their footing — and a spot in the Top 25 — with decisive home wins over Utah and then-No. 20 Colorado last week, beating Utah 93-77 and Colorado 75-54, to get within one game of the league lead.
The Wildcats are looking for a breakthrough after losing three straight road games, including at No. 1 Baylor.
“Usually it crowns the conference champion,” Miller said of road success. “Instead of having a good year, it’s a great year. We haven’t broken through in our road games.”
Touted Arizona freshmen Zeke Nnaji, Nico Mannion and Josh Green have carried the statistical load. Nnaji is averaging team highs in points (16.7) and rebounds (8.7) and has seven double-doubles. Mannion is averaging 14.0 points and a team-high 6.1 assists and Green is averaging 12.7 points, 4.9 rebounds and a team-high 1.6 steals.
Others have stepped up, and last week it was Cal-Irvine grad transfer guard Max Hazzard, who had 24 points and six 3-pointers against Utah and had 33 points in 33 minutes in the two games. He is the grandson of UCLA legend Walt Hazzard.
Arizona is averaging 81.6 points a game and shooting 48.2 percent from the field, both in the top 15 in NCAA Division I. The Wildcats are holding foes to a 38.3 from the field.
Arizona State is led by point guard Remy Martin, who is averaging a league-high 23.6 points a game in conference play.
“Those guys, we owe them one,” Martin said.
Martin has scored 20 points in each of the last six games. White is averaging 10.7 points and 9.3 rebounds and Rob Edwards is averaging 10.1 points after emerging from a shooting slump with a season-high 24 points and five threes in a victory over Utah on Saturday.
“At the end of the day, none of that means anything to me,” Martin said of his scoring. “Whether I score 14, two or 20, if we don’t win, it doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t matter. I don’t care at all. I will say that til the death of me.”
Miller: “I think he is ASU’s heart and soul, for sure. He’s a winner.”
Edwards tied a season high with five treys against Utah and has made 14 of 26 3-pointers since the Arizona game.
“I just stayed in the gym, stayed confident and came to practice every day focused and locked in,’ Edwards said. “I knew it was coming if you work hard.”
–Field Level Media