In their first contest of the new year, The Arizona State Sun Devils will open up conference play in the same fashion as last year, on the first Sunday of January and against rival and perennial power Arizona.
This season however, the Sun Devils will bring a new look to this storied rivalry.
Last season the Sun Devils entered conference play 8-5, lacking a substantial win, a commanding point guard and struggling from the line.
This season, ASU heads into Pac-12 play 10-3, with a win against a ranked Texas A&M team at home and a solid UNLV unit on the road. Point guard Tra Holder has developed into a key piece of this ASU offense, closing out the non-conference schedule with 189 points and averaging 14.5 points a game and leading his team in both categories along with field goals made, free throws made, assists and steals.
The Sun Devils are shooting 72 percent from the line and have a +5.2 turnover margin.
The Sun Devils have upset a highly ranked Arizona team in the last two seasons at Wells Fargo Arena under former coach Herb Sendek and now bring an entirely new team into this contest Sunday under Bobby Hurley.
Arizona is currently ranked No. 8 in the AP coaches' poll with ASU unranked, and the Wildcats will be heavily favored heading into Sunday's game. Is a third straight upset in Tempe out of the realm of possibility?
Stranger things have happened.
Tip-off: 12:00 p.m. MST
Television: FOX Sports 1
Arizona State Update (10-3):
The Sun Devils have won seven out of their last eight games, with their only three losses coming at the hands of a domineering Kentucky team in Rupp Arena (one they kept close for the majority of the game) and two marginal losses against both Sacramento State and Marquette.
ASU has been on fire as of late, outrebounding teams on the offensive boards for second chance points and forcing turnovers while keeping their own minimal, one of the biggest problems for ASU last season. Shooting guard Kodi Justice has been red hot from the perimeter, raking in 20 points against Houston Baptist and is leading his team from three-point land creating a great complement to Holder's ability to get points in the paint.
Arizona Update (12-1):
The Wildcats have won their last seven with their only loss coming to Providence in the DirecTV Wooden Legacy tournament where they fell 75-73.
Arizona is coming off a dominating 85-70 victory over Long Beach State behind freshman small forward Allonzo Trier's 20 points. The Wildcats outrebounded the 49ers 40-20 and shot 88 percent from the free throw line.
The major change from last season's matchup to this season's that will work in the Sun Devils' favor is the loss of star point guard T.J. McConnell and star forwards Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Brandon Ashley to the NBA. Both Hollis-Jefferson and Ashley crushed ASU with 13 points apiece last time ASU faced the Wildcats in Tucson.
Keys to victory:
1. Stay out of foul trouble
ASU has had some trouble with early fouls, particularly from their bigs, causing them to play more conservative in the first half of games. ASU needs to come out in its quick offensive tempo that Hurley preaches while being fast in transition to avoid the fouls that will prohibit Jacobsen from being efficient on the inside.
2. Dominate offensive boards
Both Jacobsen and offensive terror Willie Atwood have been dominant on the offensive boards this season with 33 and 34, respectively. Second chance points will be very important for an ASU defense that allows the highest percentage of any Pac-12 team in non-conference play despite being defensively efficient. The Sun Devils will need to take advantage of the offensive boards against a fast-paced and high-scoring Arizona offense if they hope to avoid any Wildcat runs.
3. Charity points
The last two upsets in Tempe have been marginal wins for ASU (81-78 in 2015, 69-66 in double OT in 2014) so cashing in at the charity stripe is always an imperative factor in these rivalry games. I predict this one to be another close one and if ASU wants a chance to come out on top they need to capitalize on every chance they are given, and that starts with free throws.
Prediction: Arizona State- 88 Arizona- 85