The in-state rivals will then square off again on Monday in Tucson. In preparation for these games, we caught up with our friends at Arizona Desert Swarm and their writer Ryan Kelapire to discuss the Wildcats.
Jack Johnson: The Wildcats are a midpack team in the conference standings through their first seven games of PAC-12 play, is the team meeting expectations, exceeding them, or falling short?
Ryan Kelapire: Arizona was picked to finish fifth in the Pac-12 preseason poll, so they are playing about as well as expected. I think an easy non-conference slate inflated some fans’ expectations for this season, but those came back down to earth a couple weeks ago when they were swept at home by USC and UCLA. Before the postseason ban went into effect, it seemed like most fans were expecting the Wildcats to be a bubble team.
JJ: In their last game, the Wildcats stomped Oregon State 98-64, was that game an aberration or a sign of things to come?
RK: Probably more of an aberration. Oregon State had not played in 10 days or practiced much leading up to that game due to COVID protocols. That said, Arizona is a much better team than OSU and should win that game, especially with home court advantage being minimal this season. It was a good opportunity for Arizona to get back on track after the losses to the LA schools.
JJ: Arizona saw Nico Mannion, Josh Green and Zeke Nnaji all move on to the NBA this year, who have been the players that have stepped up to fill the void?
RK: It has been a team effort. The Wildcats have five players who average double-figures in scoring. They also have three players—Azuolas Tubelis, Jemarl Baker and Bennedict Mathurin—who have scored 31 or more points in a game, while Jordan Brown and James Akinjo have each had 25-point outings.
Baker is out for the season, which means Terrell Brown, who averaged 20 points per game at Seattle U last season, has a bigger role. Long story short, this team doesn’t have a star player, but does have a lot of guys who are capable of putting up big numbers.
JJ: Sean Miller is known to bring in high-rated recruits, but the side effect comes with a lack of roster continuity when those recruits turn pro as soon as possible. Is this young team more of the same? Or does Miller finally have a group he can build upon year over year?
RK: This should be a group that Arizona can build around. Transfers are always possible, but none of their players are expected to declare for the NBA Draft after this season. You’re right that all that roster turnover has had an adverse effect on Arizona’s play, and it will be interesting to see what becomes of this group if it indeed stays together next season. I know a lot of Arizona fans are excited about the prospect of not having to replace an entire starting five again.
JJ: Who are the Wildcat X-Factors Sun Devil fans need to watch out for?
RK: With Baker out for the season with a broken wrist, Bennedict Mathurin made his first start against Oregon State and exploded for 31 points. Truthfully, he should have been in the lineup sooner. Over his last five games, he is averaging 17.4 points, 6.0 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game with a shooting line of .600/.565/.870. Also, watch for Terrell Brown, who also made his first start last game. He is a versatile guard with a ridiculous 44 to 6 assist-to-turnover ratio.
JJ: Arizona does not turn the ball over very often when on offense, what makes them so efficient?
RK: In addition to Brown, starting point guard James Akinjo has done a nice job running the offense. He can get a little too trigger-happy sometimes, but his 2.5 assist-to-turnover ratio is solid. When you have two lead guards like that and a team that likes to share the ball, you don’t put yourself in situations where you have to take bad shots or get forced into a turnover.
JJ: Sean Miller is a decorated coach, but his name has appeared in headlines more often because of off-the-court activities in recent years. Do Wildcat fans feel he is worth the trouble?
RK: Depends who you ask. Most Arizona fans would probably say no at this point, but there is still a large contingent that supports Miller. Next season is the final year of his contract, so we’ll know pretty soon how the UA administration feels about him. While the off-the-court issues have obviously been a concern, it’s not like the Wildcats have been great on the court lately, either. They haven’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 2015-16. That alone puts Miller on the hot seat.
JJ: If the Wildcats defeat the Sun Devils, how will they do it?
RK: They will stop dribble penetration and defend without fouling. Both were major issues in the losses to USC and UCLA, and ASU certainly has the guards to make Arizona pay for shoddy perimeter defense. The Wildcats also need to control the glass. They have been pretty great at that this season, particularly when it comes to offensive rebounding, and need to make sure they take full advantage of that against a small Sun Devil team.
JJ: Lastly, let’s hear a score prediction for Thursday and Monday.
RK: Both teams like to push the ball, so I expect some pretty high-scoring games. I think ASU wins a close one in Tempe and Arizona returns the favor in Tucson.
Tipoff Thursday night will be 7 p.m. AZ time, with the game airing on ESPN. Monday’s game will start at 9 p.m. and will be shown on ESPN2.