As the Sun Devils travel to Utah this week, they take with them a thorough understanding of the level of competition in the Pac-12 conference.
Though experts, pundits, and most casual fans will say the best college basketball is played on the east coast, there is no denying that some of the most intense games take place out west.
On January 2, the Sun Devils opened their conference slate with a matchup against the Utah Utes. While neither team was expected to challenge for Pac-12 legitimacy, Arizona State fans were starting to sense something special about their team.
However, when the Utes came to Tempe, most fans branded the Sun Devils' victory as a confirmation of their preconceived notions about this team. Yes, Arizona State can win. But can they hang with the powerhouses? Absolutely not.
The Sun Devils needed overtime to take down Utah, which meant that the team could expect 20-point drubbings at the hands of the conference's elite. However, at this point in the season, Arizona State knows that's not the case.
Night in and night out, any team in the Pac-12 can beat anyone else. The parity is at an all-time high, and certainty is at an all-time low.
Nearly a month has passed, and the Sun Devils now own a 7-4 conference record. As for Utah, the Utes stand at 2-9 in Pac-12 play, but just two of their nine losses have come by more than 10 points.
As these teams prepare for round two, only one thing is certain: Anything can happen.
State of the Sun Devils: Every time this Sun Devil team looks poised to challenge for conference superiority, they suffer a discouraging loss. On Thursday night, Arizona State wiped out the California Golden Bears in the first half, but barely held on in a 66-62 victory. Evan Gordon and Ruslan Pateev carried the load as the Sun Devils received critical production from role players throughout the night.
On Saturday night, the Sun Devils collapsed against the Stanford Cardinal. An athletic Cardinal team gave Arizona State post players fits all night, and Pateev and Jordan Bachynski combined to play just 26 minutes. Stanford assaulted the Sun Devils from beyond the arc, as the 10-18 mark proved critical in the outcome. Though the Sun Devils narrowed the deficit to just three points by the end of the game, the Cardinal dominated throughout their 62-59 victory.
The troubling trend of missed free throws reappeared on Saturday, as the Sun Devils made just eight of their 16 freebies. Free throws were not the only downfall for Arizona State, as a 34.4 shooting percentage also hindered the offensive efficiency.
In summary, the Sun Devils must forget about everything that happened on Saturday night. With seven conference games left to play, there is little margin for error. The Sun Devils already have six losses, and a double-digit number in the loss column would likely keep Arizona State out of the NCAA tournament. The must-win mentality needs to be embraced, and it starts with beating Utah.
State of the Utes: A three-point win over Colorado and a 31-point loss against Stanford tell the story of the Utes season. At 10-13, Utah has played competitive basketball, but there's no rhyme or reason to when the Utes play well.
Clearly, the Utes have the potential to frustrate the Sun Devils. In the January 2matchup with Arizona State, center Jason Washburn single-handedly owned the paint. The 6-foot-10 senior collected 19 points and grabbed 18 rebounds in a dominating performance that came up just short. Unfortunately for the Utes, Washburn has been one of the few bright spots in conference play.
While Jordan Loveridge also caused the Sun Devils problems, the Utah role players were nowhere to be found. Guard Jared DuBois chipped in 12, but no other Ute scored more than five points total.
The drop off from Washburn, Loveridge and DuBois to the rest of the team is significant, and Utah would likely challenge teams more frequently if it had more depth. However, relying on three players has kept the Utes close on most nights, and it can definitely do the trick against Arizona State.
The first ten minutes of this game will be critical, as a fired up Sun Devils team knows they need to sweep the road trip. The Utes understand they can compete with the Sun Devils, but they will need to find the motivation to do so.
Matchup to Watch: Jason Washburn vs. Jordan Bachynski and Ruslan Pateev
In their previous matchup, Washburn turned in one of the most impressive games by a Pac-12 big this season. His 19-point and 18-rebound output showed that the Sun Devils are susceptible in the paint, and the Utes figure to test Bachynski early and often.
Against Washburn, Bachynski actually played a solid offensive game as his 12 points and eight rebounds would indicate, but over the past few games, Coach Sendek has started to divide minutes at the center position between Bachynski and Pateev.
Bachynski would be the first to admit his inconsistencies, and he's proud of Pateev for stepping up for this Arizona State team. Regardless of who takes the lion's share of the minutes, priority number one will be locking down Jason Washburn.