The Arizona State Sun Devils (11-7, 2-3 Pac-12) hosts the no. 22 Arizona Wildcats (13-5, 3-2) Saturday in already the teams second matchup of the young season. The two teams kicked off their Pac-12 schedules with a contest earlier this month in Tucson, ultimately resulting in a 28 point blowout win for the Wildcats.
As ASU looks to even the score, we spoke with Ryan Kelapire of Arizona Desert Swarm about UA’s recent play and the team’s prospects heading into their matchup with the Sun Devils.
JR: How would you evaluate UA’s start to Pac-12 play?
RK: Inconsistent. The Wildcats have destroyed the three teams they have played at home (ASU, Utah and Colorado), but were swept in Oregon, including a ghastly 17-point loss at Oregon State in which Arizona turned in its worst defensive performance in years. But the Wildcats followed that up with two complete wins over the Rocky Mountain schools, and the ASU game will be a good test to see if they can carry that momentum on the road. The way the Pac-12 is shaking out, Arizona has a great chance of capturing a conference championship if it can handle business away from McKale Center. So far that just hasn’t happened.
JR: What player, if any, do you feel like is just now hitting their stride?
RK: Max Hazzard. The UC Irvine transfer was unconscious in the wins over Utah and Colorado, averaging 16.5 points per game while shooting 9 for 16 from 3. That included a 24-point outburst against Colorado in which Hazzard buried six 3s. He has a lightning-quick release and can pull up from seemingly anywhere, making him extremely dangerous on a team that has a lot of other star power. Hazzard was a microwave scorer when he was at UC Irvine, and the hope is that his performances against Utah and Colorado will serve as a springboard for a strong second half of the season.
JR: Where does UA’s 21-point win over No. 23 CU fall in most impressive Wildcat wins so far this season, and what will UA try and replicate from that game going forward?
RK: It was the most impressive win of the season for several reasons. For one thing, Colorado is generally a good rebounding team and Arizona, which has struggled in that area, crushed them on the boards 38-23. Arizona also shot north of 40 percent from 3 and had seven players score six or more points. When the Wildcats are balanced like that, they are difficult to stop. And rebounding is so important for this team, not just because it ends defensive possessions, but also because it allows the Wildcats to run in transition, where they are at their best. If there is anything the Sun Devils need to do Saturday, it’s give a valiant effort on the glass.
JR: Zeke Nnaji has been one of the Pac-12’s best players so far this season and debatably has been even more impressive in conference play than he was to start the season. Was this level of play expected at the start of the start, and do you expect it to continue into March?
RK: Nnaji has definitely been a pleasant surprise. Nico Mannion and Josh Green were the blue-chippers of this freshman class and Nnaji was a four-star recruit. It wasn’t even a given that he was going to start, but once practice began it became clear how good he is. I don’t see any reason why he can’t continue producing like this. Teams adjusted for him by doubling him, and he now has a much better feel for how to operate out of them. What he really has going for him is an incredible motor. It allows him to impact the game even on nights his scoring is down. He grabbed seven offensive rebounds against Colorado.
JR: What are UA’s biggest concerns heading into a difficult stretch that includes 5 of their next 7 matchups on the road?
RK: Like I said earlier, it’s that they won’t be able to translate their success at McKale to other venues. This is a team with eight new players and that inexperience has shown in high-pressure situations, such as at Oregon when the Wildcats blew a six-point lead with 1:45 left in regulation. If those road woes continue, it will be hard to take this team seriously come March.
JR: Has Sean Miller sweat through his shirt yet this season and will it happen Saturday?
RK: It happened in a road loss to Baylor, but I wouldn’t expect it to happen in Tempe... (see next answer)
JR: Score prediction?
RK: And that’s because I think the Wildcats will pick up where they left off against Utah and Colorado and handle the Sun Devils on their homecourt, 79-70. While Arizona has struggled on the road this season, Mannion and Green are used to playing in the Phoenix area (heck, Mannion played in a high school state championship game at Desert Financial Arena). Plus, there should be a large contingent of Arizona fans there to make it feel like home.