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ASU basketball: Q&A with AZ Desert Swarm

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Can ASU get it done at home?

NCAA Basketball: Arizona State at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

On the eve of ASU’s second meeting with in-state rival Arizona, we sat down with Ryan Kelapire of AZ Desert Swarm to try and learn a little bit about U of A and get to the nitty gritty like why Wildcat fans dislike Bobby Hurley so much?

We even answered a few questions for him that appear at the bottom of this article as well as right here.

Here’s Ryan’s answers along with his prediction:

House of Sparky asks AZ Desert Swarm

Jordan Kaye: Since I don’t believe any team can stop Deandre Ayton, how can ASU slow him down and not let him have 23 and 19 again?

Ryan Kelapire: There probably isn’t an actual answer to this question, but I would say to let him take jumpers. If there has been one part of Ayton’s game that has been frustrating at times this year, it’s his propensity to settle for mid-range jumpers instead of attacking off the dribble or in the paint. He is a good shooter, but he is just so much more dominant around the basket. So whatever ASU can do to coax Ayton into taking jumpers is the right plan, but obviously that is way easier said than done.

JK: Pretty much every Pac-12 team has combatted ASU’s offense with some form of a zone defense, will U of A do the same?

RK: It’s doubtful. Sean Miller is a staunch proponent of man-to-man, so the only time he will ever go zone is if man-to-man is getting destroyed. And even then, he still might not do it. We’ve only seen Arizona play zone two or three times all season. Miller’s inflexibility is probably the one thing Arizona fans dislike about him as a coach the most.

JK: Bobby Hurley talked about the animosity that U of A fans have against him. How much do people in Tucson truly dislike Hurley? And why? Hurley has never beaten the Cats.

RK: People really, really don’t like Hurley here. Part of it stems back from his Duke days, but it’s mostly because of his antics. Like, when he said that if teams want to win in Arizona, they better go to [expletive] Tucson, or that time he got ejected for losing his mind. And I think there’s now an added level to the animosity now that the Sun Devils appear to be on the upswing while Arizona has the FBI cloud over its program.

JK: When talking about Arizona, people always bring up Ayton and Allonzo Trier, but Dusan Ristic and Rawle Alkins have really flourished since their last meeting with ASU. What has been different and allowed them to be so effective?

RK: Rawle Alkins is healthier now (he broke his foot before the season), but is still hit-or-miss. Defensively, he has been a disappointment this season as he struggles to defend off the dribble, but he has a solid all-around game offensively. He is a streaky shooter, to be sure, but when he is on, he is one of the best offensive guards in the country. And when he plays well, Arizona wins.

Ristic has really been flourishing as you mentioned, and I think I’d credit it to him being a senior and realizing that this is his last go-around. He has always been a skilled player, but he has a little bit of an edge to him this year.

JK: Over the last four games, U of A has gotten called for two more fouls than ASU. Have the Wildcats also had troubles with the #Pac12refs?

RK: I wouldn’t say so. Arizona just struggles to defend without fouling. Sometimes Ayton and Ristic are called for ticky-tack fouls because they are so much bigger than their opponents, but that’s about it.

JK: Does U of A see ASU as a real threat?

RK: Yes, definitely. People expect this to be a toss-up game, or maybe even favored the Sun Devils’ way because it’s in Tempe. Nearly every conference game has been close for Arizona this year. And the Wildcats haven’t really proven they can beat an NCAA Tournament-caliber team on the road yet, so I’m not sure why anyone would be overly confident that Arizona will win Thursday.

JK: Does Sean Miller stay undefeated against Bobby Hurley?

RK: No. I’ve always thought these teams would split the season series with the home team winning each time. So I am sticking to that. ASU is an interesting matchup for Arizona because neither team is good defensively, but both have dangerous offenses. So it could simply come down to which team misses fewer open shots. I know that was a real issue for ASU when it played in Tucson earlier this season.

AZ Desert Swarm asks House of Sparky

RK: How different is ASU now compared to non-conference play? It seems like the Sun Devils’ play has tapered off a bit since that hot start.

JK: At times, it’s looked like a different team. Opponents have stifled ASU’s offense by playing a zone defense and as a result, those open shots that propelled ASU to a 12-0 record started to become contested. Also, aside from last weekend, the Devils’ defense was lackluster. They kept getting beat down-low and allowed a plethora of wide-open corner 3s.

RK: That said, ASU has won three straight, so what has been working for them lately?

JK: Well, for one, its shots have been falling. ASU hit 42 percent of its shots against both LA schools and hasn’t relied of just getting hot from 3. It hit just 15 combined triples in those two games, opting to drive to the hoop much more. ASU has also been at home which I think has really elevated its defense.

RK: Tra Holder — and most good point guards — has given Arizona trouble this year. What can the Wildcats do to slow him down?

JK: This is somewhat similar to the answer on how to stop Ayton: make him shoot. That’s not a knock on Holder, either, he’s a solid shooter, but the Wildcats can’t let him drive to the hole. Holder is one of the best in the country at getting to the line. Sean Miller even praised his ability to do so after he shot 16 free throws in the first meeting.

RK: ASU’s defense actually ranks better than Arizona’s right now, so how have the Sun Devils been able to improve on that side of ball?

JK: That’s incredibly surprising, but in the past few games the Devils’ forwards De’Quon Lake and Romello White have stayed out of foul trouble and kept opponents off of the line. The Devils have also been producing a ton of turnovers. USC committed 18 against them and UCLA had 12.

RK: Has their offense changed at all since the last matchup?

JK: It hasn’t changed so much as its evolved. The Devils still want to get the ball into the paint early, string together a few 3s and they still want to get out into transition as much as possible. But, they haven’t relied on the 3-ball lately. The guards have started driving and throwing up more floaters while also keeping two forwards on the court more, using the 4-guard set much less since that first meeting.

RK: Highly-touted freshman Kimani Lawrence didn’t play against Arizona last time, so what has he added to the Sun Devils?

JK: He’s given the Devils extra versatility on defense and added length on both sides of the ball. His contributions have been very limited, but he had what looked to be a breakthrough game against UCLA, notching eight points, seven rebounds and was all over the court.

RK: What do you expect the atmosphere to be like Thursday? Usually, there is a large contingent of Arizona fans, but I feel like it will be different this year because of how well ASU has played.

JK: Well, there’s definitely going to be a solid amount of red in “The Bank” (Wells Fargo Arena’s new nickname), and I’d be willing to go out on a limb and say that it’ll be far more noticeable than the approximately nine yellow dots I saw in McKale in December. But WFA gets loud, especially when a few deep shots start dropping. ASU tore down its back wall earlier in the season to increase the arena capacity to over 14,000, even drawing 14,025 against UCLA on Saturday. For really the first time in the Hurley era, fans think the Devils have a fantastic shot to beat the Cats at home – both them and the atmosphere are going to be electric.

RK: Are ASU fans disappointed how this season has turned out after it started so well?

JK: I would’ve said yes and then it rattled off three straight wins and all seems right with the world in Tempe. Throughout the Pac-12 slump, people were more frustrated than disappointed -- especially when the “ASU is on the NCAA Tournament bubble” talk started sparking up a week ago.

RK: Prediction?

JK: These teams are comparable, that was confirmed with their first meeting in Tucson. I think this game will come down to the wire, and if so, ASU is much better in crunch-time at home. Ayton and Ristic are intimidating, but the Sun Devils have played much better as of late against big men. For those reasons, I think ASU will beat U of A for the first time in Hurley’s tenure.