It’s rather fitting that Valentine’s Day will serve as the date for the final regular season matchup between Arizona’s two in-state rivals, after all, there is little love lost between the Arizona and Arizona State basketball teams.
The first clash on the hardwood between the Sun Devils and Wildcats back on Jan. 16 was barely even that. Sean Miller’s squad took full advantage of Jermaine Marshall’s absence (groin), climbed out to a 35-14 advantage and never looked back.
Paced by Nick Johnson (17 points), Aaron Gordon (16 points), Kaleb Tarczewski (12 points and eight rebounds) and T.J. McConnell (10 points, six assists and three steals), Arizona turned a rivalry affair into an all-out stomp job, routing ASU by a final of 91-68.
A lot has changed, however, since the Wildcats’ 23-point victory.
Despite going 5-1 in its last six games, Arizona suffered a pair of losses during its trip up to Cal Berkeley Feb. 1. In addition to dropping their first contest of the season 60-58, the Wildcats lost sophomore forward Brandon Ashley to a season-ending foot injury.
For ASU, the 23-point blowout served as a major wake up call in the midst of its Pac-12 schedule. After the loss, head coach Herb Sendek inserted Eric Jacobsen into the starting lineup in place of Jonathan Gilling — a move that has paid immediate dividends. Since the shakeup, the Sun Devils have also gone 5-1, including a pair of overtime victories over Cal and Oregon State.
Here’s a look at what each team needs to do to be victorious Friday night at Wells Fargo Arena:
1. Make Free Throws
The concept seems simple enough, but the second-ranked Wildcats have struggled mightily from the charity stripe all season long. Even in its win over ASU on Jan. 16, UA hit just 53.8 percent (15-of-28) from the free throw line.
There is nothing more debilitating to a hostile home crowd than an opposing team converting foul shot attempts. Like it or not, the onus will largely fall on freshman Aaron Gordon to be ‘the guy’ from the line.
In his last seven games, Gordon has hit just seven of his 25 free throw attempts, but he’s also a matchup nightmare, so expect Jacobsen, Gilling and Richie Edwards to be aggressive with the former All-American in the paint. Physical play will mean plenty of trips to the charity stripe.
2. Hollis-Jefferson Holds the Hot Hand:
During the teams’ first matchup, freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was a complimentary piece off the bench for Arizona, scoring 11 points on 4-of-7 from the field.
However, given Ashley’s injury, Hollis-Jefferson has become a much more integral part of the Wildcats’ offense. In his first two Pac-12 starts, the 6-foot-7 standout has combined for 30 points and 15 rebounds and three assists.
In all likelihood, he will be defended by the Sun Devils’ best perimeter defender, Shaquille McKissic. With that said, Hollis-Jefferson’s skill set is largely based inside the arc, so it will imperative that the freshman play to his strengths — slashing to the basket, cutting without the basketball and getting garbage buckets on the offensive glass.
3. Win the Battle on the Block:
ASU center Jordan Bachynski is arguably coming off his best two games as a Sun Devil. The reigning Pac-12 Player of the Week combined for 43 points, 24 rebounds and 16 blocks in a home sweep of the Oregon schools last weekend.
Though the numbers were impressive to say the least, they will be much harder to come by when the conference’s all-time leading shot blocker faces Arizona for a second time. Based on his first go-round with the Wildcats this season, Bachynski will have his hands full.
Throughout the 91-68 defeat, Bachynski was manhandled by Arizona’s Kaleb Tarczewski at both ends of the floor. He didn’t look comfortable on any of his post catches, wasn’t all that aggressive on the boards and put together his worst performance of the 2013-14 campaign (three points on 0-of-3 shooting to go along with six rebounds). If Arizona can again limit Bachynski’s effectiveness on the block, it’ll have a great chance to sweep the in-state rivalry series.
1. Get Gilling Going:
While Eric Jacobsen has moved into ASU’s starting lineup, the bulk of the minutes Friday night will more than likely still go to Jonathan Gilling. Although the junior will have his hands full at the defensive end going head-to-head with whomever he’s assigned to, the Sun Devils will need his shooting ability on offense.
Gilling, who finished with just five points on 1-of-5 shooting against the Wildcats Jan. 16, has reached the double-digit scoring mark eight times this season. In those eight games, ASU is a pristine 7-1. And when the junior forward makes at least three shots from downtown, the Sun Devils are a perfect 7-0.
Needless to say, when Jonathan Gilling is rolling, so too are the Sun Devils.
2. Take Care of the Basketball
The concept is a basic one, but Herb Sendek’s job did a horrific job with ball security in Tucson. In the first half alone, the Sun Devils committed eight turnovers. By the time the first 20 minutes were up, they were staring at an insurmountable 14-point deficit.
Ball security starts and ends with Jahii Carson, who has been very turnover prone of late (4.5 per game and 24 over the last five contests).
If ASU and Carson can keep to their season average of 11.6 turnovers or slightly less, they have a chance to knock off Arizona. However, another 18-turnover performance will likely yield a similar result as Round 1 did.
3. Make Marshall Matter
Jermaine Marshall’s absence in the first showdown was noticeable. With the senior transfer unavailable and Bachynski struggling to make much of an impact, ASU became a one-dimensional offensive team, relying solely on Carson to score.
Marshall will be back Friday night and if recent history is any indication, his groin is feeling just fine. ASU’s second-leading scorer has 22 or more points in three of his last four games and should prove to be a tough cover for the Wildcats, who may rely on Johnson to slow him down.
Johnson may get his on offense, but the Sun Devils need to get the ball to Marshall early and often, in an effort to make him work at the defensive end.