Tonight’s basketball game between University of Arizona, the nation’s top-ranked team, and un-ranked Arizona State appears to be, at least on paper, another David vs. Goliath encounter.
But the outcome is going to rest on which ASU team takes the floor for the 7 o’clock tip-off at McKale Center. And so far this season, even the Sun Devils’ head coach, Herb Sendek, hasn’t been able to predict that before game time.
When the Devils (13-4, 2-2) shoot well, they’re in the game and dangerous. But consistency in that area has not been a strong suit this season.
(*Update: Unfortunately for Sendek and the Sun Devil fans who made the trip to Tucson, it was the gang that couldn’t shoot straight that showed up for this one. Arizona dashed ASU’s hopes for any kind of upset early, putting the hammer down on defense and holding the visitors to just 23 percent shooting in the first half while building a 42-28 lead by halftime on 50 per cent shooting of their own. Seven UofA players scored in double figures as the Cats pulled away in the second half to a 91-68 victory and their 18th straight win this season. Nick Johnson led the way with 17 points.)
And, frankly, that should worry Arizona head coach Sean Miller as much as it does Sendek. If ASU is on its game tonight, they could be a problem for the undefeated and incredibly talented Wildcats, who could already be looking past the Devils to their game next week with Colorado. They undoubtedly know that a win against the Buffaloes would give them a piece of history by tying the longest winning streak in program history.
This is called setting the stage for a major upset.
The Sun Devils would need a big game from their 7’2″ center, Jordan Bachynski, who gives them a counter in the paint to Arizona’s own 7-footer, Kaleb Tarczewski. This Wildcat squad is the tallest across the board since Miller arrived in Tucson five years ago, so it will take more than Bachynski, although his presence is a formidable weapon on defense, too. The senior from Canada has an NCAA-best 78 blocks to his credit and is on track to break the Pac-12 career record of 278.
But the story tonight will likely revolve more around the point guards. Miller will depend on his senior floor general, T.J McConnell, and Sendek will counter with sophomore Jahii Carson, who is expected to make an early exit after this season and move on to the NBA.
The kid’s that good – but he’s struggling lately. He scored just nine points on 4-for-17 shooting Sunday against UCLA, and the Devils played horribly, falling behind the Bruins by as much as 23 points in the second half. But earlier in the schedule, he reeled off 40 points against UNLV, and added seven assists – and the Devils won that won. He became just the seventh player in school history to score 40 or more points in a game.
Carson’s and Bachynski’s contributions aside, there’s another important consideration before putting down any bets on this game, perhaps the biggest X factor…. motivation. That’s where ASU actually may have an advantage.
The Devils are 13-4 overall and 2-2 in conference play. They need some quality wins to impress the NCAA selection committee when it comes time at the end of the season to hand out the tickets to the Big Dance. They have a handful of teams left on their schedule with high RPIs, which could give them some quality wins, but a win over the No. 1 team in the nation might be the ace in the hole they will need for a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
Their chances to win the Pac-12 tournament to get an automatic bid are slim and none. So they will have to count on their performance during the season.
Haunting memories still linger from last season when ASU collected 22 wins and set a school record by winning 16 games at home – but was passed over by the NCAA and wound up playing in the NIT. An invitation to the NIT again this year, which would mark the fifth straight year the Devils have failed to get to the Dance, would not be considered a successful end to the season.
ASU did topple a No. 1 team once before, but that was back in 1981 when a Byron Scott-led team knocked off top-ranked and undefeated Oregon State. And Sendek has done it twice during his head-coaching stint at North Carolina State, beating Duke and North Carolina.
In an Arizona Republic article this morning, Sendek addressed the upset of No. 1 North Carolina back in 1998 and pointed out that his Wolfpack had a bad practice the day before and he was expecting the worse for the big game. One of his guards hit eight three-point shots and the team couldn’t miss from the free-throw line, where they collected 32 points.
There are too many variables, Sendek said, to be able to predict the outcome of any game.
So, does ASU have a chance to pull off the big upset tonight? Sure.
But it will take perfection on the part of the Sun Devils – and some self destruction offered up by the top team in the country.