Sean Miller calls ASU ‘heavy favorite’ in Pac-12, worries over UA’s defense

Arizona head basketball coach Sean Miller reacts in the second half as official Mike Reed looks on in first of an NCAA college basketball game against New Mexico, Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017, in Albuquerque, N.M. (AP Photo/Eric Draper)

Arizona head coach Sean Miller isn’t known to exaggerate when praising opponents. He’s also not shy about laying out honest truths regarding his own team.

Miller just might’ve done both at his Thursday press conference in advance of his Wildcats hosting No. 3 Arizona State on Saturday in McKale Center.

“You know, No. 3 in the nation and I think somebody who can win the national championship, certainly a number one seed in the tournament,” Miller said of the Sun Devils. “I think (they are) a heavy favorite to win our conference. I don’t think anybody saw that coming, but that’s what they’ve earned.”

Arizona State is off to an all-time best 12-0 start, and No. 17 Arizona enters the rivalry game and Pac-12 opener on a seven-game winning streak.

Since a three-game losing skid in the Bahamas dropped the Wildcats to 3-3 on the year, they have steadily improved on some of the defensive flaws that burned them early in non-conference play. Notching wins over No. 7 Texas A&M, a Collin Sexton-led Alabama team and a currently 11-2 UNLV squad might lend evidence toward those steps forward, especially on defense.

But facing the Sun Devils and their offense that produces the fourth-best rating in the country doesn’t have Miller speaking with as much confidence as he often could as a ranked team playing in front of one of the best college crowds in the nation.

“It’s a big problem. I don’t care who you have defensively,” Miller said. “Nobody’s really been able to keep them off the free-throw line, to stop them in transition.

“To me, the most revealing statistic they have going for them is their ability to score from the free-throw line. They’re the furthest thing from just this small team that shoots threes. They really are efficient and they get to the foul line at the highest level.”

Arizona State has the best free throw to field goal rate in the nation thanks to its fast tempo and speedy foursome of guards Tra Holder, Shannon Evans, Kodi Justice and Remy Martin. Shooting nearly 40 percent from three-point range, defenses have been stretched out and individually isolated against the Sun Devils’ ball handlers.

While Arizona’s size with 7-foot-1 Dusan Ristic, 7-foot Deandre Ayton and wings Rawle Alkins and Allonzo Trier could pose problems for ASU, Miller was blunt is assessing his bench unit when it comes to stopping the Sun Devils on the other end.

“I don’t know if we have a deep team. We’re trying to figure out who we’re playing,” Miller said. “That’s not because I’m not paying attention to who I want to play — that’s because it’s very difficult to determine who should. That’s not a good thing.

“They’re one of the best offensive teams that I’ve faced in my nine years here at Arizona,” Miller added of ASU Tuesday on a teleconference call. “They remind me just in terms of their numbers of how UCLA would’ve been a year ago. UCLA didn’t get to the free throw line last year as much as Arizona State does this year, but they were just prolific scoring and played at a very fast pace and had a lot of weapons and guys that can make shots on the court. Ditto for Arizona State.”