It’s that time of the basketball season when Arizona State leaves the friendly confines of Tempe and travels south to the far less friendly (and less appealing) city of Tucson to face No. 3 Arizona.
The Sun Devils are reeling after losing four of five but will be rejoined by head coach Bobby Hurley and guard Jay Heath after the pair were suspended after a confrontation with officials after the Jan. 22 game against Stanford.
Little is expected of Hurley’s team, but that is usually when they are at their most dangerous. The Wildcats are coming off one of their weakest performances of the season after a 75-59 loss to UCLA in Westwood, Calif.
Nevertheless, the Wildcats are back to being their fearsome selves after a few years of strife in the twilight of the Sean Miller era. New head coach Tommy Lloyd has Arizona ranked inside the Top Five and poised for March.
Can the Sun Devils throw a blue shell in the Wildcats’ proverbial clear path to dominance in this game? To gauge the energy emanating from what should be a rocking McKale Center tomorrow (since there is little else to do on a Saturday in Tucson) we spoke to Brian Pedersen from our SB Nation sister site AZ Desert Swarm to get the rundown on the Cats.
Jack Johnson: A few years ago, it looked like Arizona basketball was staring into the abyss with scandal and FBI investigations swirling around the coaching staff. Now, they’re back to being Arizona in a way that hasn’t been the case since the mid-2010s. Should we have expected this?
Brian Pedersen: Escaping big penalties from the NCAA? Yes, because parting ways with Sean Miller likely will have a big impact on whatever the IARP eventually decides. But as for this team’s performance under Tommy Lloyd, particularly this quickly, no way. He did benefit from getting back five guys who had started last season, and several of them fit better into his Euro-centric style of play than Miller’s, but the swiftness with which the Wildcats have come together was very unexpected.
JJ: Bennedict Mathurin has been a walking bucket all season long, but Kerr Kriisa’s output was clearly missed in the loss to UCLA. Which breakout star is more valuable to this team: Kriisa or Mathurin?
BP: There have been more instances this season where Mathurin has been limited by an opponent’s defensive approach and it hasn’t affected Arizona’s production because of all the other weapons, but when Kriisa struggles it resonates more. This is particularly the case when he is turning it over and not distributing it as well. When he missed the Utah game on Jan. 15 (for getting ‘hurt’ somehow during the pregame meal) Arizona’s offense just didn’t flow like normal.
JJ: Speaking of the loss to UCLA, any cause for concern to lose by that much in a game of that magnitude?
BP: I don’t think so, I think that had as much to do with UCLA being really good as Arizona not being nearly as good as its start might have indicated. This team had been playing with house money all season and was bound to get smacked in the face at some point. The key, now, is how the Wildcats respond to losing like that. In other words, ASU is the guinea pig.
JJ: Tommy Lloyd has to be in the running for Coach of the Year, what has he brought to the program that has fueled this rapid turnaround?
BP: It’s kind of ironic that, under Miller, the program’s Twitter handle was @APlayersProgram, yet it’s Lloyd that really lets his guys play. There are no set plays called for specific players, it’s all about flow and finding the open man and not worrying about everyone getting their scoring chances. Miller was far more regimented and, though these same players loved him, he often handcuffed his best offensive stars with his style. That’s not the case with Lloyd, and it’s resulted in a much more fun brand of basketball that lends itself to lopsided scores.
JJ: How significant Azoulas Tubelis’ his left ankle sprain? Is that a reason to sound the alarm for the Wildcats?
BP: It sounds like Tubelis probably shouldn’t have played against UCLA, since he wasn’t close to 100 percent, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he rests against ASU to be closer to 100 for the UCLA rematch next Thursday. The fact that he played, though, is an indication that it can’t get any worse, so it’s more a matter of getting him back to full strength than worrying about it being a long-term injury.
JJ: Let’s hear the prediction. Can the Sun Devils make this a game?
BP: If ASU can force live-ball turnovers (and turn them into immediate points), maximize its second chances and keep Arizona from running, it can keep it interesting. But ASU’s not going to be able to win a track meet, not with how inefficient its offense has been, so I’m expecting a margin of at least 20.
The game tips off at 12:30 p.m. MST and can be viewed on CBS.