As Arizona State's Valentine's Day showdown with Arizona nears, we here at House of Sparky wanted to get the scoop on the opponents down South. To do this, House of Sparky sought out Scott Coleman of SB Nation.
Coleman is a Journalism and Sports Management Major at the University of Arizona. He currently works as a News Desk writer for SB Nation and also contributes to SB Nation's Atlanta Braves team site.
Here is our Q&A with Coleman.
House of Sparky: How big of a loss is Brandon Ashley to Arizona and who will the Wildcats look at to replace him?
Coleman: Losing Ashley was obviously a big blow. With such a tight seven-man rotation, losing arguably the team's second-best player was going to be tough to overcome. Ashley didn't get a ton of publicity but his ability to spread defenses and protect the glass was a huge piece of UA's puzzle. That's not to say the Wildcats can't make a real run in March, but it's tough to see them cutting the nets down with essentially six players.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has replaced Ashley in the starting lineup. A five-star freshman who may just be the best NBA prospect on the roster, Rondae is a freak athlete and has drawn comparisons to Andre Iguodala. He recorded a double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds against Oregon and followed that up on Sunday with 16 points and five boards against Oregon State.
Elliott Pitts, another freshman, will likely see a couple minutes a game moving forward as the seventh man.
HoS: Arizona has won 10 games by fewer than 10 points this season. What makes the Wildcats so good in close games?
SC: Defense and guard play. The Wildcats are the best defensive team in the country, according to Kenpom.com, and they've somehow found another gear in the closing minutes.
T.J. McConnell and Nick Johnson have been a bit erratic these last few games, but their play down the stretch has been phenomenal. Both of them are juniors with probably 150 combined career starts under their belts, and it really shows when the pressure is on. If the game is close late, look for UA to get the ball to Johnson for free throws; he's one of the few good free throw shooters on the roster.
HoS: What do you feel like is Arizona's biggest strength and what do you feel like is its biggest weakness?
SC: We already touched on it a bit, but it's the defense. McConnell and Johnson are terrific in the backcourt, Hollis-Jefferson and Gordon are well beyond their years defensively, and Tarczewski, while not a prolific shot blocker, uses his size to protect the rim.
The biggest weakness is free throw shooting. The Wildcats shoot 66 percent from the charity stripe, and that number is inflated a bit by Ashley's 76 percent. Gordon is absolutely awful at the line (42%) and guys like Hollis-Jefferson (64%) and York (70%) aren't shooting as well as they should.
HoS: How has Aaron Gordon's game evolved over the course of the season?
SC: The constant with Gordon is his defense. He's one of the best defenders in the country, and he'll be able to guard any player ASU puts on the floor with the exception of Jahii Carson. He's so athletic and quick that Gordon seldom gets beat 1-on-1.
Offensively, it hasn't been as pretty. He is coming off his best game in weeks against Oregon State -- he had 17 points and 8-of-12 shooting and seemed to regain some confidence -- but the fact remains he can't really score away from the basket. Add in his awful free throw shooting and Gordon isn't a great offensive player at this point in his career.
HoS: How is this Arizona State basketball team thought of in Tucson?
It's the best team they've had since James Harden was in town. I said from the early going that this Sun Devils team was legit and it's not a surprise to me that they're going to make the NCAA Tournament barring a complete collapse. I don't think Herb Sendek is the long-term answer, but he's probably bought himself another year or two in Tempe.
HoS: What is it going to take for Arizona State pull off the upset?
SC: This game is going to be really interesting. The Wildcats won't have Ashley and the Sun Devils get back Jermaine Marshall. Will that and the home crowd be enough to overcome a 23-point drubbing in Tucson a month ago?
In order for ASU to win, Jahii Carson will need to have an efficient game. He scored 20 in the earlier meeting, but he needed 19 shots to do it and turned the ball over too many times. He will also need to keep McConnell out of the lane, where he tends to find guys wide open for a dunk or three-point attempt. Jordan Bachynski has never played well against Arizona, and him keeping Kaleb Tarczewski (and Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson) off the glass will also be key.
I expect there to be a terrific atmosphere at Wells Fargo Arena. Looking forward to the game.
You can follow Scott on Twitter @ScottColeman55.