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ASU Basketball: Sun Devils look to upset rival Wildcats in this year’s trip to Tucson

The Maroon and Gold have struggled thus far, and a date with the Wildcats won’t make things any easier.

Utah v Arizona Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Arizona State Sun Devils open up a three-game conference road trip with a matchup against the No. 16 Arizona Wildcats on Thursday night.

The Sun Devils are looking to rebound from an 88-82 loss at the hands of the Utah Utes last Saturday in a game where the Sun Devils were completely overmatched by forwards Kyle Kuzma and David Collette, who had monster performances all over the floor in the Utah victory.

Here’s what you need to know heading into Arizona State’s contest with Arizona, including an update on each team, keys to the game and a prediction of the outcome.

Tip-off: 7:00 p.m. MST

Television: ESPN2

Radio: 98.7 FM - Sun Devil Sports Radio Network (Tim Healy, Kyle Dodd)

Arizona State Update (9-8, 3-2 Pac-12)

The transfer of highly-anticipated recruit Sam Cunliffe was a disappointing narrative for many fans of the team, but the former ESPN top-50 recruit’s departure has been largely overshadowed this season by the Sun Devils’ disappointing performance in the first 17 games of the season.

There’s no question this team is loaded with talent in backcourt, but the Sun Devils demonstrated once again against Utah just how difficult it is to put together a complete performance without an answer in the post.

Due to lackluster performances thus far from freshman center Roman Vila and a dreadful start to freshman center Jethro Tshiumpa’s Sun Devil career, head coach Bobby Hurley was forced to give senior forward Obinna Oleka (6-foot-8, 225 pounds) 31 minutes, mostly at the center position. Undersized and stuck in the wrong role, Oleka wasn’t able to contribute on either side of the court, shooting just 4 for 9 from the floor and totaling one steal and one block.

All of this puts tremendous pressure on senior guards Torian Graham and Tra Holder, as well as junior guard Shannon Evans II to produce offensively. The trio were indeed very productive against the Utes combining for 53 points, but once again, guards are only half of the equation when it comes to forming a successful program.

Hurley’s last matchup against the Wildcats was a 14-point game at half that exploded into a 38-point blowout victory for Arizona by the final buzzer in Tuscon.

Arizona Update (15-2, 4-0 Pac-12)

The emergence of Oregon and UCLA’s basketball programs has provided some much-needed parity in the Pac-12, a conference won by the Wildcats in both 2014 and 2015. That being said, Arizona is still a very talented program and should give both Chris Boucher and Lonzo Ball a tough challenge later in conference play.

After a rocky start, (and admittedly an extremely tough opening schedule) for the Wildcats, Sean Miller’s program has righted the ship by winning nine straight games.

The Wildcats are a very well balanced team, and their offensive attack starts in the backcourt with the talented and unanimous five-star recruit, freshman Rawle Alkins. The 6-foot-5 guard from Brooklyn is second on the team averaging 12.3 points a game and adds a surprising rebounding element to the team, grabbing 5.6 total rebounds per contest.

Unfortunately for the Sun Devils, the majority of damage is done in the frontcourt for Arizona. A pair of seven footers in freshman forward Lauri Markkanen and senior Dusan Ristic combine for nearly 30 points and 14 boards a game, and will surely be the focal point of Arizona’s attack against ASU on Saturday.

Keys to the Game

1. Don’t Give the Wildcats Space to Operate

How do you defend a team with two seven-footers that can abuse an undersized team in the paint, but also has two players shooting above a 45% clip from beyond the ark? If there is an answer to this, it would most likely be in the form of extreme pressure on every Wildcats player to touch the ball. Arizona is full of great shooters and passers, but if the Sun Devils can stay away from the zone and press in one-on-one matchups, they can push the Wildcats in to difficult shots.

2. Green. Light.

If Arizona State has any chance at pulling off this upset, the Sun Devil guards may have to have the best game of their respective careers. Time and time again this unit has been forced into keeping the team in a lot of close ballgames, and make no mistake Arizona will score a lot of points in this game. Evans, Holder and Graham should all be finding whatever space they can to fire away, as a hot-shooting night is ASU’s only hope in this matchup.

Prediction: Arizona 95, Arizona State 68