On Saturday afternoon, Coach Herb Sendek's squad will face its toughest challenge of the season to date. The Sun Devils are riding high after a 14-3 start to the regular season, and expectations have ramped up because of the surprisingly successful results.
After a couple of down years, the Arizona State basketball team is back. Despite all the question marks and uncertainty heading into the 2012-2013 season, the Sun Devils have risen to the occasion and revitalized the hopes of basketball fans in Tempe.
When the Arizona Wildcats come to town this weekend, Sendek's boys will be tasked with living up to the hype that they have created for themselves. At the beginning of the year, few expected the Sun Devils to compete at a high level, let alone play like a dark horse contender in the Pac-12. With the impressive play of Carrick Felix and Jahii Carson, the potential in the maroon and gold is increasingly evident.
Though the Arizona Wildcats own a 15-1 record and outscore opponents by over 14 points per game, Sun Devil fans know that their team belongs on the same court as their foes from down south.
On Saturday, an exuberant crowd will fill Wells Fargo Arena, and the vast majority of fans will have one thought on their mind: Arizona State can beat the Wildcats.
While Arizona is ranked seventh nationally and features an exciting combinations of veteran standouts and highly touted recruits, the Sun Devils stack up well.
The Sun Devils see Mark Lyons running the point for Arizona, and they gladly call with freshman stud Jahii Carson. Coach Sendek knows the Wildcats have savvy veteran Solomon Hill spreading the floor, and he'll raise with captain Carrick Felix.
On Saturday, Arizona State will match up with Arizona and the Sun Devils and their fans fully expect to see positive results. After all, crazier things have happened.
Last season, Arizona invaded Wells Fargo Arena riding a wave of confidence. The Wildcats had compiled a 21-9 record, and their reward for a 20-win season was coming to Tempe to put a beat down on their struggling rivals. The Sun Devils limped to a 9-20 mark, and had no true identity as a team.
Arizona State looked lackluster on offense, and defensively, the matchup zone was a certifiable train wreck. While the Wildcats' win mark included 12 conference victories, the Sun Devil loss column received some cushioning from the likes of Fairfield, Fresno State, and Northern Arizona.
On paper, the Wildcats barely needed to make the trip up north. But instead of treating themselves to an open buffet, Arizona got stuffed in a different way. Carrick Felix enjoyed a 23-point outing, Jordan Bachynski blocked six shots, and Jonathan Gilling had a coming out party with a season-high 21 points. The Sun Devils even overcame a six-point halftime deficit to shock their in-state counterparts.
What's most impressive about the 87-80 victory for the Sun Devils is that they hung tough despite some superior efforts. Guard Kyle Fogg scored 23 points, Solomon Hill added another 16, and Jesse Perry tallied 15 points and pulled down 11 rebounds in a losing effort.
Last season, the Sun Devils stunned the Wildcats. Arizona had no reason to believe that the Arizona State was capable of pulling off an upset, but that's exactly what the Sun Devils did.
This year, the Wildcats will be ready. Though this Sun Devil team still has its doubters, Coach Herb Sendek's team has come a long way. Arizona knows the damage the Sun Devils are capable of, and Mark Lyons and company cannot wait to flex their muscles and defend their national ranking.
The Sun Devils have added Jahii Carson and Evan Gordon in the backcourt, but the Wildcats have a few new pieces as well. Talented freshman Brandon Ashley is a matchup nightmare, and sophomore guard Nick Johnson has finally come into his own.
If Arizona State pulls off the upset, the surprise that lingered from the 2012 victory in Tempe will have already subsided. Fans will be forced to acknowledge this year's team as the talented bunch that it is, and their newly founded expectations will have been justified.
Come game time, the Sun Devils will take the floor with a mission to beat the Wildcats. Based off of last season's game and this season's promise, those watching closely know one thing: It can be done.