UA basketball will be favored against ASU…but not so fast

With the first half of the Territorial Cup basketball rivalry between Arizona and Arizona State coming up tomorrow afternoon in Tucson, it’s going to be hard to predict a winner.

That’s because  it will all come down to which teams show up.

A quick glance at the records would indicate that Arizona at 9-4 would have the upper hand over the Sun Devils, who are struggling at 4-8 and on a three-game losing skid.

But will this be the ASU squad that has lost four out of the last five games, with the only win in that span a three-point victory over North Dakota State when Carrick Felix drained a three-point shot at the buzzer?

The ASU team that got off to its worst start in 13 years by going 1-3 to open the season, and mustered just 44 points in a stunning 11-point loss to Fairfield University, a little-known Jesuit college in Connecticut.

Or will it be the ‘other’ ASU team that came out of the gate firing away on offense, winning its opening game over Montana State with a starting five that all scored in double figures?

The team that shot 61 percent from the field in an early December win over Tulsa and beat Wake Forest by 28 points in the Old Spice Classic in Florida, holding the Demon Deacons to 28 percent shooting while getting a 59.3 percent performance from their own offense.  Keala King hit 25 points that night and Trent Lockett added 20 of his own.

One of those teams will have to face an Arizona squad that is just as mysterious.

(*Update: ASU left its ‘A’ game in Tempe, as the Wildcats picked up 22 points on the Sun Devils’ 19 turnovers and won by 17.  Final: Arizona 68-51.)

Arizona entered the season with a top-10 recruiting class and a No. 16 national ranking, but stumbled in its second exhibition game, losing to Seattle Pacific University (albeit in overtime), a Division II school.  And then a 61-57 loss to San Diego State seven games later dropped them from the ranks of the ranked – where they remain.

The Wildcats are 3-2 in their last five games, but seem to be stabilizing the listing ship.  They have won back-to-back games coming into the contest with ASU – but against weaker opponents, Oakland and Bryant.

Their last win, against Bryant, will do little to prepare them for their intrastate rival down in Tempe.  The Cats coasted to a 100-60 win against Bryant, a D-II program from Rhode Island that plays in the Northeast Conference, as they were able to play all 14 players on the roster, with five scoring in double figures.

The Sun Devils will be a different story.  No gimmes here.

While the smart money is on the Cats, it wouldn’t be too farfetched to consider an upset win here.

ASU can put the points on the board when it has to, as three Sun Devils are averaging double figures.

But the key will likely be found in the paint.  The Achilles heel for Arizona this season has been the rebounding.  They’re a small team by most standards and the bigger, more physical teams have caused a lot of heartburn – and most of the losses.

ASU, on the other hand, is out-rebounding opponents by almost four boards a game.  Kyle Cain, a 6’7″ sophomore, leads the squad with 7.1 rebounds a game.

So, don’t let the records fool you.  Nine of ASU’s games so far have been decided by six points or less, and the last four outings have been decided by three or less, with the outcome in each hanging on shots in the final seconds.

But you have to take into consideration the fact that Arizona has pretty much owned this series in recent years, winning 27 of the last 34 meetings, and has run up a 78-28 advantage in games played at McKale Center.

ASU is averaging just over 65 points a game.  Arizona is averaging 76 points the last five games.

However, this should be closer than it appears to be on paper.

And considering that this is the Pac-12 opener for both teams, all those non-conference tilts mean little.

Things will get serious beginning tomorrow afternoon in Tucson.  Toss a coin.

(Photo: Arizona Athletics)