This time, today’s basketball game with the Arizona Wildcats represents more for the Arizona State men’s team than just a chance to beat a hated rival.
It might represent the only hope the Sun Devils have to get an invitation to the dance.
The Big Dance, that is. ASU has 20 wins this season and, at one time, was looking like a solid bubble team worth consideration by the NCAA selection committee for inclusion in this year’s tournament. But three straight losses to Washington State, USC, and UCLA have all but popped that already-fragile bubble.
BUT…a quality win over a ranked opponent, followed by a solid showing in the Pac-12 Tournament, just might provide a long shot to getting some consideration by the selection committee.
Herb Sendek and his staff have been telling their players all season long to focus on the game at hand, and the rest of the season will take care of itself. Well, the rest of the season is today. And, unfortunately for the Devils, it’s in Tucson.
(*Update: Arizona used nine ASU turnovers in the first half to build a 40-25 lead at intermission and then the Cats pulled away down the stretch to record a 73-58 thumping of their in-state rivals. ASU went on to commit 17 turnovers in all – which Arizona turned into 21 points. The win assures Arizona of a first-round bye in the Pac-12 Tournament.)
No matter how they spin it, this game is all about proving they belong in the post-season.
And they can thank their rivals down south for that opportunity.
The Wildcats (23-6, 11-6) are the No. 18-ranked team in the country, but they were ranked No. 3 very early in the season and remained in the top 10 through 25 games. They were still sitting at No. 11 a couple weeks ago, and were a solid candidate for that NCAA Tournament invitation, but were upset by USC and then lost to conference-leader UCLA last Saturday.
In the game against USC, the Cats were behind for most of the game and let the Trojans go up by as many as 13 in the second half. It was the first time in five meetings between the two teams that USC has come out on top, despite a 21-point performance by Arizona’s Solomon Hill.
The Cats found themselves playing catch-up again against UCLA, which took a 40-36 lead into the half, but the game wasn’t decided until the final seconds of the game. That loss was the fourth in the past seven games for Arizona, but head coach Sean Miller appeared satisfied that the team’s defense has improved and liked the effort his players showed following the stunner at USC.
“I have a much better feeling after this game than I had the other night against USC, just because we played at a much higher level,” Miller said after the encounter with the Bruins in Los Angeles.
So maybe the Cats are recovering from the psychological letdown of the past few losses and will be back in the groove before the 2:30 tip-off this afternoon.
Or maybe the Sun Devils (20-10, 9-8) are catching their rivals at just the right time. ASU actually plays well on the road; seven of their eight conference road games have been decided by five or fewer points.
After all, USC (14-6, 9-8) pulled off the upset. And the Sun Devils can easily be compared to USC. The two teams are tied for sixth place in the conference – and ASU’s 20 wins show they can put a quality performance on the floor.
Today, the Devils will need one of those high-level performances to keep the flicker of hope alive.
But the opportunity for post-season play should be a great motivator.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)