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ASU prepares for ‘unique’ back-to-back with Arizona; Graham progressing

Arizona State guard Remy Martin brings the ball up during the first half of the team's NCAA college basketball game against California in Berkeley, Calif., Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

The Arizona State Sun Devils and Arizona Wildcats enter some uncharted waters this week.

With multiple postponements on both sides needing to be rescheduled, the duo will square off in back-to-back meetings this season. The move provides more flexibility in the final week for the two to try to fit in the Pac-12 games lost earlier this year.

Round 1 of the Territorial Cup series takes place Thursday in Tempe before the two programs square off in Tucson on Saturday after moving the Wildcats’ home game up from March 6.

Like just about everything else this season, you have to be able to adapt on the fly to new situations.

What isn’t new, however, is the rivalry.

“It’s a different feel always. Should have a few more knots in your stomach, you should be a little more edgy,” head coach Bobby Hurley said via Zoom on Wednesday. “There should be a little more chippyness today in practice, that’s what I’m hoping.

“That would alert me to the guys understand the magnitude of the game. … It will be different with no fans but certainly doesn’t change the importance of it for both schools. We’re just excited to have an opportunity to play it.”

The Sun Devils (4-6; 1-3) enter the matchup looking to snap a four-game losing streak that dates back to Dec. 16.

ASU’s sixth loss of the season came in a one-point defeat to the Oregon State Beavers. Although the score read in favor of OSU, Hurley was pleased with almost everything he saw on the court.

Almost everything.

“I just think our offense really came around the last game, our efficiency, our numbers were very good outside of the 3-point line,” Hurley said. “We’ve been spending more time shooting in practice and focusing on that. I think how we attacked the paint was very good against Oregon State, won that by a substantial margin.”

The longball continues to be an issue of late for ASU, who has been outshot from 3-point land in three of their last four losses. Since Jan. 16 against UTEP, ASU has shot 23.6% (21-of-89) from deep. Before the four-game skid, the team was shooting 36.2% (54-of-149) through six games.

And with a team that goes with a smaller lineup more times than not, it’s critical the Sun Devils remedy their shooting issues — and fix subtle breakdowns — ahead of the team’s home matchup with the 10-3 (4-3) Wildcats.

“Overall, if you look at our last three games, our opponent has made three or four more 3-point shots than we have and our percentages have not been great,” Hurley said. “We’ve got to figure out how to make some open shots and close that gap a little bit.

“We’re playing a lot of perimeter players so we’ve got to shoot it a little better because we are scrapping right now, we are showing more resiliency, we’re battling harder on defense and in the paint. Now we just got to add a little more efficiency in how we shoot the basketball.”

Arizona enters the matchup after dismantling OSU 98-64, ending a two-game losing streak in the process.

The Wildcats are led by guards James Akinjo and Bennedict Mathurin. Akinjo leads the team in points (13.5) and assists (5.7) per game, while Mathurin sits second on the team with 12.0 points per game and fourth in rebounding (4.8).

As a team, the Wildcats outrebound the Sun Devils 41.0 to 31.7 boards per game. Arizona’s led by freshman Azuolas Tubelis and sophomore Jordan Brown in that category, averaging six and 5.6 rebounds per contest, respectively.

The Sun Devils will need every hand on deck for the two-game series, and it appears they may have nearly that.

After missing the past three games due to mononucleosis, sophomore forward Jalen Graham appears on the up and up for ASU. The forward put in individual skill work Tuesday and was given the opportunity to practice more Wednesday.

If everything checks out, Hurley said Graham would be available against the Wildcats. The head coach added it would be a big boost for a team looking to add some more size back into the rotation.

“We have to solidify our frontcourt and we have to get healthier,” Hurley said. “Jalen Graham is a step in the right direction in regard to that, especially with what Arizona brings to the table with their frontline and how good they’ve been in the paint and how good they’ve been as a rebounding team this year.

“Certainly we’re going to need to get those guys performing at a good level and making sure we’re all committing to protecting the lane and rebounding the basketball. Those are going to be major priorities in this game.”

The Sun Devils haven’t tasted victory since Dec. 13. A win over the Wildcats on Thursday would not only get the team back in the win column, it could be the springboard that gets ASU back on the right track.

Hurley has said so himself, his team is close to going on a run. What better way to start it than against the in-state rival?

“If your guys aren’t motivated and enthusiastic for this opportunity to play a program like Arizona then you’re in the wrong business,” Hurley said. “For me, I think it’s going to be, ‘Can I get these guys to just relax and just play?’ They’re going to be ready to play, they’re excited to play. They’re gonna want to play hard and compete.

“I just don’t want them to be tense, I don’t want them to try to do too much. I want them to relax. If anything, I’m gonna be trying to chill them out more than amp them up.”

The Sun Devils and Wildcats tip off at 7 p.m. Thursday. Catch all the action live on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.


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