TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — Arizona State has been the underdog in its rivalry with Arizona for the better part of three decades.
The Sun Devils had a run of five straight victories in the mid-2000s after Wildcats coach Lute Olson retired, but nearly all their other victories have been considered upsets.
This season, the third-ranked Sun Devils have closed the gap like one the blink-of-the-eye fast breaks that have made them one of the college basketball’s biggest surprises.
“Our history of playing them, they always win,” Arizona State senior guard Shannon Evans II said. “Every once in a while we might get a win, an upset, things like that. Now, they’re not passing a torch to us, but we’re in the same room with them.”
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The Sun Devils literally will be in the same room with the Wildcats on Saturday, playing at Arizona’s McKale Center in one of the most anticipated games in the rivalry’s 104-year history. It’s the first time the rivals will play each other with both teams ranked since 1995.
Arizona State (12-0) is off to the best start in school history after perfect run through its non-conference schedule — the big one a victory at Kansas — and has matched its highest ranking in the AP Top 25, last accomplished in 1981.
The Sun Devils play fast and free, entering Saturday’s game sixth nationally with 91.8 points per game. They’re led by senior guards Evans, Tra Holder and Kodi Justice, who have seemingly unlimited shooting range and an ability to get to the rim.
Coach Bobby Hurley has added some frontcourt help with the addition of Romello White, De’Quon Lake and Mickey Mitchell, giving Arizona State an inside presence at both ends to take some of the load off the guards. The Sun Devils also have one of the nation’s best game-changing players off the bench, high-motor freshman guard Remy Martin.
“They have all the parts. They really do,” said Arizona coach Sean Miller, who called Arizona State the heavy favorite to win the Pac-12. “Experience. Guard play in college basketball is so important and they have depth at that position. Not just quality, but different players on different nights as guards that can step up and they play a style and a pace that’s very difficult to play against. I think they have a lot of answers for sure.”
Arizona (10-3) has found a few of its own since a rough start.
The Wildcats opened the season No. 2 in the AP Top 25, based on a veteran core led by preseason All-American Allonzo Trier and a strong recruiting class headed by athletic big man Deandre Ayton.
Arizona stumbled almost out of the gate, unable to guard anyone while going 0 for 3 at the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas that dropped the team out of the rankings. The Wildcats shored up their defensive lapses and sophomore guard Rawle Alkins returned after missing the first nine games with a foot stress fracture, adding a level of toughness and athleticism.
“They have talented players, they’ve won (seven) in a row and they are continuing to get better like you would hope, so it’s a big challenge,” Hurley said.
The Wildcats also have one of the best home-court advantages in college basketball.
Arizona won its 47th straight non-conference game at McKale Center with a victory over UConn last week and has only lost two home games since the 2013-14 season. Arizona State has not won in Tucson since 2009-10 and has lost 11 of 14 to the Wildcats overall.
“I feel like we’re already down 10 when we play in Tucson,” Evans said. “You’ve got to go in there with a mindset that you’re not going to get any calls. The fans are crazy in there. Everybody has U of A colors on, talking crazy to you, so it’s an environment that everybody is against you. So you’ve got to go out there and play your best game.”
The Sun Devils have excelled so far this season, turning the latest game in their rivalry with Arizona into a must-watch game.
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