Sunday’s game with the Arizona Wildcats is the one that Bobby Hurley undoubtedly circled on his calendar months ago. And the one that could set the tone for the rest of the schedule – and validate the early-season success of Arizona State‘s new head coach..
It’s the first game on the Pac-12 schedule and Hurley has his team in a good place right now.
The Sun Devils have won seven of their last eight games during the non-conference portion of the schedule. The lone loss in that four-week stretch was to then-No. 5 Kentucky, a well-contested game which they lost by 14 points.
And they will have home advantage on Sunday, hosting the Wildcats at Wells Fargo Arena. Being able to play this game in Tempe is huge because the Cats are nearly impossible to beat in Tucson. They have won their last 47 straight games at McKale Center, the longest active streak in the country.
But ASU is no slouch at home, either. The Devils are 8-1 this season at Wells Fargo and 54-9 over the past four years.
It should be a packed house for this game, since for the first time in awhile the Devils will be expected to give their rivals to the south all they can handle. Hurley has the ASU fan base revved up and dreaming big, with an exciting style of play that has run up a solid 11-3 record heading into Pac-12 play.
Judging by their play in December, the Sun Devils are ready for the challenge of conference competition.
For their part, the Wildcats will come into the game with just one loss in 13 starts and are coming off an eight-game win streak. They moved up five spots in the national rankings last week and sit at No. 8 in the AP poll and No. 7 in the coaches’ poll.
But there’s recent precedent for a Sun Devil team knocking off a top-10 team. It was just two years ago, Feb. 14 of 2014 to be exact, when the Devils took down the No. 2 team in the country. That team was…yep, Arizona, which was 23-1 at the time and looking pretty invincible.
This year, Arizona’s 12-1 start is reminiscent of last year’s success, when the Cats won 34 games, second-most in program history, and went on to win both the Pac-12 regular-season and tournament titles and wrap up the season with a second-straight Elite Eight appearance.
Seventh-year head coach Sean Miller has returned the Wildcat program to its place among the elite in college basketball, and this year’s team appears ready to continue on that course.
But ASU is going to be a dangerous opponent in this Territorial Cup match-up. It has been hard for opponents to throw a blanket over their offense because they spread the scoring around; six different players have led the team in game scoring. And if you can’t get the job done in the first half, it makes for a long second half because they’re a team that makes adjustments at halftime and takes the game to the next level, averaging 41.4 points in the second half.
It’s also difficult to take the Devils off the boards. Only three teams in 13 games have been able to out-rebound them.
However, success in this game, when the Devils are already over-matched, could depend in part on whether Hurley is ready to insert Savon Goodman back into the line-up. The junior forward, who is averaging 12.4 point and eight rebounds a game, has been watching from the bench the last four games, due to what has been termed “personal reasons.”
Bottom line: This may be a contest on Sunday between an un-ranked program and the No. 8 team in the country, but both the ASU team and its new head coach have a full head of steam and something to prove.
And what better time and place to prove it, than as an underdog on your home court against your hated rival.
Fireworks start with a noon tip-off.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)