Down the stretch: ASU, UA women’s hoops neck & neck

As February begins, the sports calendar marks the turn into the final stretch of the college basketball season.  And in Arizona, the fires of a burning rivalry are trying to ignite once again.

The University of Arizona and Arizona State women’s teams enter the final third of the season neck-and-neck.

If you look at both teams, you’ll see a mirror image.  Arizona State is 11-9 overall and 3-5 in the Pac-12 standings.  Arizona is 11-8 and 3-5.

The intrastate rivals are uncomfortably sitting on the same conference perch, tied for seventh place.

And three of their five conference losses have been at the hands of the same teams:  Washington, Colorado, and UCLA.

Upon closer examination, this situation actually appears to be the result of one team playing better than expected, and the other team under-achieving.  ASU is trying to live up to the pre-season polls that picked the Sun Devils to finish fifth in the conference (not a very lofty goal in itself), while Arizona is ahead of the last-place projections it received.

ASU head coach, Charli Turner Thorne, is trying to get back on track after taking a nine-month hiatus from the program that had her on the sidelines for all of last season.

Her Sun Devils have been the dominant team for the better part of a decade, while the Wildcats have been trying to rebuild a program that enjoyed national prominence under hall-of-fame coach, Joan Bonvicini.  Her teams made seven NCAA Tournament appearances in her 17 seasons at the helm.

But Bonvicini stopped producing top-tier teams after the 2005 season and was replaced by an assistant coach from the tradition-rich Kentucky program, Niya Butts.  It has been a slow, and unsteady, climb to try to get back up the conference ladder – much less any success on the national level.

The 2010-11 season was actually much like this one is developing.  Butts enjoyed her best season so far, coming within one game of finishing in third place in the conference – and tying ASU for that honor.

But last year was a step back.  The Cats fell back into their third losing season since Butts’ arrival, posting a 15-17 overall record and winning just three conference games to leave them in the Pac-12 cellar when the season ended.

Which helps explain why the pre-season projections had them starting there for the new year.

This weekend, they will bounce the Washington schools back and forth between them.  ASU will host Washington State tonight and Washington on Sunday; Arizona will reverse the order.

For the Sun Devils, it’s a welcome return to their home court after a four-game stretch on the road.  They’re also looking to rebound from a four-point loss to UCLA last weekend; they split on their California road trip, beating USC by seven before losing on Sunday to the Bruins in the final 30 seconds of the game.

ASU won both games against Washington State last season and split with Washington.  But they have pretty much owned the series with both teams in recent years, having  won 17 of the last 21 against Washington (14-5, 6-2) and 27 of the last 31 against the Cougars (6-13, 2-6).

The Wildcats are also coming off a four-game road trip and definitely need some wins this weekend as they try to rebound from three losses out of the four games.  They beat Utah, which beat Arizona State.  Go figure.

So far, the anemic attendance for the Cats’ games reflects the indifference fans are showing to a team that has lost five of its last seven games.  But maybe the special promotion planned for the weekend will help.

It’s time for the annual “Wag Your Tail in McKale” event.  No, nothing offensive here.  It’s meant for the four-legged animals with tails, as fans are invited to bring their dogs to the game – provided they’re properly trained and their vaccinations are up to date.  The canine visitors can even take advantage of free nail trimming and teeth cleaning while taking in their McKale Center experience.

Hey, you gotta love these creative marketing gimmicks.

But we have to assume the official attendance figures this weekend will still rely on just the number of fannies in the seats – those without tails.

(Photo: ASU Athletics/ Steve Rodriguez)