Duel in the Desert Preview: Arizona State at Arizona
Arizona State travels to Tucson to take on the No. 1 Arizona Wildcats Thursday at 7 p.m. in Tucson, but both teams have a different look from the ones that saw UA sweep last year's season series.
The Wildcats have added standout freshmen Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, as well as a true point guard in T.J. McConnell, while ASU is enjoying the addition of transfers Jermaine Marshall and Shaquielle McKissic to play alongside standout guard Jahii Carson.
Arizona owns a 49-22 edge since the 1979-80 season, and the Wildcats (17-0, 4-0 Pac-12) -- off to the best start in school history and the No. 1 ranked team for six weeks and counting -- have the clear advantage in the game.
Still, the revamped Sun Devils (13-4, 2-2) are far from a pushover. Here's a look at the keys to the game for both sides:
Keys for Arizona
1. Hit from outside
Arizona has the athletes and size to create multiple mismatches against any team in the country, and as a result, they've faced a lot of zone this season. While ASU has morphed from the days of Herb Sendek's matchup zone, it's likely that the Sun Devils' chances center on using a zone defense to slow down the Wildcats.
The best way for any team to beat a zone is by hitting outside shots, and that's exactly what the Wildcats did in a 20-point win over USC. But while Gabe York, T.J. McConnell and Nick Johnson have all shown flashes of being consistent threats from behind the arc, the Sun Devils' best shot to pull off the upset is to force someone to beat them from three-point range consistently.
2. Own the paint
ASU's center Jordan Bachynski is a defensive force around the basket, but the Sun Devils lack size around him. Arizona's frontcourt is one of the country's biggest, with 7-foot center Kaleb Tarczewski, 6-foot-8 forward Brandon Ashley and the 6-foot-9 Gordon, the Wildcats have an abundance of size, length and athleticism.
And they need to use that size to dominate the smaller Sun Devils in the paint. Aside from the 7-foot-2 Bachynski, ASU's lone player taller than 6-foot-6 that plays double-digit minutes is the 6-foot-7 Jonathan Gilling -- and he's largely a perimeter player. Arizona should have its way in the paint, both offensively and on the glass. But if Bachynski is able to hold down the inside by himself, it could be the spark ASU needs to slow down Arizona and put in an upset bid.
3. Contain Carson
ASU's Carson has shown that he can be a one-man show capable of winning a game by himself. His 40-point game in a six-point win over UNLV showed that he can dominate a game by himself, but the Sun Devils have yet to show that they can knock off a quality opponent with Carson at his best.
If Arizona can force the load onto some of ASU's role players, the Wildcats have to love their chances. Marshall has shown that he can be an offensive threat, but he's questionable for the game because of an ankle injury. Gilling is a legitimate threat from behind the 3-point line, but ASU lacks the variety of scoring threats that will likely be necessary to knock off Arizona.
Keys for Arizona State
1. Protect the rim
An ASU team that ranks No. 229 in the country in rebounding margin is obviously lacking in size, but the Sun Devils need to find a way to protect the rim if they want to knock off Arizona. The Wildcats do much of their damage with put-backs and dunks off of misses, and ASU is in trouble if Arizona is able to consistently do that.
ASU's best chance will come if it can force Arizona to reset its offense and score from the outside. If Aaron Gordon and Co. are able to get to the rim at will, the Sun Devils will be lucky to keep this one close.
2. Give Carson help
Carson has shown the ability to be a one-man show, but that's not how ASU will take down Arizona on the road. The Sun Devils need to have several scoring threats, whether they're in the form of Gilling, Marshall, McKissic or a surprise game from someone else.
But that's a tough task against the defensive intensity of Arizona, led by its pair of standout freshmen and the on-ball pressure that McConnell and Johnson can apply, though it's a key for the Sun Devils to keep this game close, let alone give themselves a shot at a win.
Basketball is a game of confidence, and the Sun Devils need to believe they can go to Tucson and knock off the country's No. 1 team if they want any chance of actually doing it. Carson has never had an issue with confidence, and it's rare for top-level athletes to go into a game without being confident about their chances.
If ASU can get off to a quick start and boost its confidence, anything is possible. But if Arizona is able to race out to a large lead, the Sun Devils don't have the offensive firepower to be able to come back. Confidence is key, and it's vital that ASU gets as much of it early as possible.
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