Anticipation…UA vs. ASU basketball draws nat’l audience

Tomorrow’s men’s basketball game between University of Arizona and Arizona State should be one of the best of the season.  Really.

Many of those who tune in for the 12:30 pm tip-off of the nationally-televised game (FSN) will undoubtedly be expecting the No. 7-ranked Arizona Wildcats to have their way with their un-ranked opponent.  But these two teams are very similar in a lot of ways this year.

(*Update: A stifling Arizona defense held ASU to well below their scoring average as the Cats pushed past the Sun Devils in the final 10 minutes to run up a 71-54 victory.  ASU was down by just three points at the half, but its offense sputtered through the second half and couldn’t keep the margin from getting out of reach the rest of the way.  Mark Lyons had 24 points to lead the Cats, while Jahii Carson topped the ASU scoring chart with 22.)

Arizona has won 15 games, ASU has 14 wins.  Both are 3-1 in the Pac-12, with each losing to the same team: the Oregon Ducks.  Maybe instead of the “Territorial Cup rivalry game,” this one should be billed as “the battle between the two teams that couldn’t beat the Ducks.”

For the Wildcats, that loss was particularly demoralizing because it broke their 14-game unbeaten streak to open the season.  For ASU, it was a heart-breaker that wasn’t over until a three-point shot fell short of its target as time expired – and it was their last game before taking on Arizona.

Both teams have great point-guard play.  Jahii Carson leads the Sun Devils with 17.1 points a game, while dishing out better than five assists a game.  Arizona is led by a graduate transfer from Xavier, Mark Lyons, who leads his team with 14.6 points per game and contributes 3.3 assists per outing.

Both teams are solid in the paint.  ASU out-rebounds its opponents by 1.2 boards a game and the Cats hold a +9.6 margin on the glass – the best in the Pac-12.  Arizona records four blocks a game, while ASU is third in the nation in that category, with 7.5 blocks per game – which means a shot is blocked about every eight times an opponent tries to shoot.

Credit much of that ASU effort to Jordan Bachynski, the 7’2″ junior center who has 76 blocks already this season.

ASU is averaging 72.6 points a game.  Arizona has averaged 74.2 points in each of its four true road games this season – and this one will be on the road at Wells Fargo Arena in Tempe.

And most people don’t realize that ASU’s head coach, Herb Sendek, is 7-6 against his Tucson rival since taking over the program in 2006.  He pulled off a big upset in last year’s season finale by beating the Cats, 87-80, in a game that had 11 ties and 22 lead changes.

That loss helped send Arizona, which had won 21 games to that point, to play in the NIT instead of the NCAA Tournament.

But it hasn’t always been that way.  When Lute Olson held the reins of the Arizona program, he owned the Sun Devils.  And that is still what sticks in the minds of college basketball fans.

During one stretch of Olson’s 25 years that turned Arizona into a national power, his Cats came out on top in 24 of 25 meetings.

But it’s a new era in the Territorial Cup rivalry, between a head coach in his seventh season (Sendek) and a coach in his fourth season (Sean Miller).

The series actually dates back to 1914, and since then Arizona owns a 142-80 advantage.  But that no longer has any relevance, which is a better deal for the fans anyhow, who want to enjoy a raucous, closely-contested encounter each time – as long as their team wins, of course.

And that’s what they should get tomorrow afternoon.  ASU has the home-court advantage, where they’ve won three of the last five against Arizona.  But the Cats have shown they aren’t bothered by playing in hostile territory; they’ve won three of four on the road and have averaged an 11-point scoring margin in those games.

Likewise, ranked teams don’t seem to bother Sendek.  He has beaten 36 of them during his 20 years as a college head coach.

In fact, the last time one of his ASU teams hosted an opponent ranked as high as the Wildcats, they beat them.  That was back in 2008.

And that team, Stanford, was also ranked No. 7.

This should be a good one.

(Photo: Arizona Athletics)