Calling Arizona-Arizona State a rivalry is a little like calling someone who only plays "Angry Birds" on their phone a “gamer” — it’s technically true but hugely deceptive.
Yes, Arizona State fans hate Arizona. And yeah, Arizona fans probably derive minor joy from lording their historic basketball superiority over their in-state brethren, even if they’d never admit it. Still: Since 1979-80, Arizona is 49-22 against the Sun Devils with an average margin of victory of 8.5 points. In 2013-14, Arizona has been ranked No. 1 for six weeks and, after Sunday night’s 73-53 victory over USC, is 17-0 — the best start in the program’s storied history. The Sun Devils have never had much luck against Arizona. Why would this season, of all seasons, be any different?
All of this illustrates exactly why it feels so insane to say this: Arizona State has a real chance to win at Arizona on Thursday night. Not an “anything can happen in college basketball" chance. A real, actual chance. No, seriously.
That is not the same as saying the Sun Devils will win, of course; Arizona is the heaviest of favorites. (Wildcats fans, I beg of you: Please review this sentence before you hit send.) The Wildcats are more talented and more balanced and have been almost flawlessly coached by Sean Miller this season. They’ve played a tougher schedule and bested it. They also have this guy. They’re just better. But through that underdog status, the Sun Devils’ real, actual chance can be tangibly traced to the way they match up with the Wildcats on the defensive end — the way they’ve quietly made opposing offenses miserable.
Through 17 games, including Sunday’s 15-point loss at UCLA, Arizona State opponents have the 13th-worst effective field goal percentage in the country: just 43.1 percent. Against the Sun Devils, opposing offenses shoot just 28.9 percent from 3-point range and 43.0 percent from 2-point range, and have 15.5 percent of their shots blocked. That last part is especially key. ASU center Jordan Bachynski blocks 4.8 shots per game and 13.9 percent of available attempts. He also clears 21.9 percent of his team’s available defensive rebounds. It isn’t easy to constantly play help and challenge shots and then recover to clear the glass; few players manage it. Bachynski is one of them, and his presence makes everything ASU opponents do on the interior a grind.
If you want an even minuscule chance of knocking off Arizona, this is an awfully good place to start. Having Aaron Gordon and Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley in the same lineup makes for lots of easy interior buckets, it turns out. According to hoop-math.com, Arizona attempts 35.7 percent of its field goals at the rim, where it shoots an eye-popping 77.8 percent. But if you can nudge the Wildcats out into mid-range territory, their percentage plummets to 29.9 percent.
The Wildcats’ frontcourt is similarly effective in the inverse: Arizona allows opponents to shoot just 16.6 percent of their attempts at the rim. But ASU point guard Jahii Carson might be one of the few players both quick enough to break down the Wildcats’ pack-line membrane and crafty enough to create points afterward.
If Bachynski can protect the rim and Carson can get into the lane on the other end, the Sun Devils could very well find themselves hanging tough in a tight, defensive contest — in striking distance, as they say.
These are monstrous ifs. Arizona will almost certainly win in Tucson on Thursday; an Arizona team this good hasn’t come around in, well, maybe ever. Still, that the Sun Devils have even a striking-distance-level shot against their would-be rivals says just as much about the 7-foot-2 center in Tempe.