The Arizona Wildcats exposed a huge weakness in the Arizona State men’s basketball program – and then used it to administer a double-digit beat-down of the Sun Devils in the first of two rivalry games on the schedule.
Arizona dominated the boards in Saturday’s conference opener, scoring 50 points in the paint to the Sun Devils’ 18 to help the Cats to a 75-47 rout in front of 14,644 frenzied fans at McKale Center. The size advantage the No. 24 Wildcats brought into the game made it almost impossible for the Sun Devils to operate effectively under the basket.
And this won’t be the last time the Sun Devils (9-5) will have to match up to teams with similar size, particularly if they manage to earn a postseason berth in the NCAA Tournament.
But there were some other danger signs that popped up in that game — nagging problems of inconsistency that have lingered since the beginning of the season. The ASU shooters didn’t just have trouble scoring under the basket, they found it difficult to score from anywhere on the floor, connecting on just 30 percent of their shots from the field and a dismal 14 percent from behind the arc.
Even their free-throw shooting was cause for alarm. Arizona, too, had its troubles at the line, hitting just half of their shots, but ASU had to settle for a 42 percent (8-of-19) performance.
The Devils just couldn’t find an effective way to put points on the board.
And their defense only made it worse. Arizona outscored them in fast-break points, 25-9. The result was an early runaway that put ASU in a 36-17 hole at halftime, due in large part to the fact that their shooters made just one 3-pointer on 10 tries in the first half.
This from a team that has been averaging 73 points a game.
ASU’s junior guard, Remy Martin, scored 20 points to top all scorers, but none of his teammates added more than eight points to the effort. Arizona had four players in double figures: Zeke Nnaji (photo above) led with 17 points, followed by Josh Green (12), Nico Mannion (10), and Dylan Smith (10).
The nine wins during the non-conference portion of the schedule shows the Sun Devils managed to somewhat compensate for a lack of size prior to the start of conference play, but it’s not going to be easy getting around that deficiency against their Pac-12 opponents.
Losing a rivalry game is bad enough, but this loss should be of far greater concern to the ASU fan base. It calls into question their team’s ability to compete against the big boys going into Pac-12 play — and beyond.
ASU has qualified for the NCAA Tournament the last two seasons, the first time in nearly 40 years that a Sun Devil team has managed to post back-to-back appearances at the Big Dance.
But right now that streak appears to be in jeopardy.
The loss to their long-time rival down the I-10 is even more disappointing since it was beginning to look like fifth-year head coach Bobby Hurley was finally bringing the Sun Devils on a par with Sean Miller‘s program, which is consistently ranked among the nation’s elite. Last year, the Devils swept the annual two-game series from the Cats for the first time in a decade.
But last year was not an ordinary season for Arizona, which finished 17-15 overall, 8-10 in conference, and missed the postseason for the first time in seven years and only the third time in the last 35 years.
That season is in the rear view mirror now. Arizona is 11-3 and appears to have rebounded back to its old form, bolstered by another top-10 recruiting class.
And, based on Saturday’s results, it feels like that old gap between programs may be threatening a return.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)