The last time Arizona State and Arizona faced each other as ranked opponents, Bobby Hurley was less than two years removed from his historic run as the motor of Duke basketball’s rise to national power.
Hurley, who has the third-ranked Sun Devils off to the best start in program history in his third season as the head coach in Tempe, brings his team to Tucson this weekend for a Saturday night tip (9 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network) against No. 17 Arizona. The Copper State rivalry game offers a chance for both programs to claim or reinforce their stake as one of college basketball’s best teams this season.
The uber-talented Wildcats (10-3) are back on track after dropping three straight in the Bahamas in late November. They can pick up their best win of the season and their sixth in a row against the Sun Devils with the help of a daunting home court. Arizona State (12-0) already has a couple of quality notches on its belt -- most notably a win at Kansas -- but beating their rival for the first time in Hurley’s tenure and starting conference play with a win would provide another significant leap in legitimacy.
Arizona State’s jump from back-to-back 15-win seasons to a team that is averaging 91.8 points per game has been fueled by increased depth, especially in the front court. A triad of veteran guards -- Tra Holder, Shannon Evans and Kodi Justice -- might be the heart and soul of this team, but help from some big men up front has given them the space they need to take a major step forward this year.
“It’s opened things up so much,” said Justice, a senior guard and Mesa native who grew up cheering for the Sun Devils. “There were times before when we would try to drive and everyone would be sitting in a gap, so we couldn’t get to the lane. There was no one at the rim. Being able to have that presence inside ... has done tremendous things for this team.”
Justice, a 6-foot-5 shooter, had to play in the front court at times during the past two years due to Arizona State’s lack of size. He’s thankful that the emergence of Romello White, De’Quon Lake and, most recently, Mickey Mitchell will keep him from having to post up against 7-foot phenom DeAndre Ayton on Saturday.
The Sun Devils are still getting bigger. Mitchell sat out the first eight games of the season and has kicked off the rust only in the past couple of weeks. He’ll soon be joined in the rotation by 6-foot-7 freshman Kimani Lawrence. The four-star recruit has been sidelined with a stress fracture for his first couple of months in Tempe but practiced fully with the team this week. Hurley said he’ll be a game-time decision on Saturday, but the coaching staff is excited about getting another player to add to what they consider to be a burgeoning identity that goes against the stereotype of a guard-centric Pac-12 squad.
“We’re not a finesse team,” Hurley said Thursday afternoon. “I want them to be explosive, exciting and out in the open in court. We have that capability, but we have guys that are mentally tough warriors. I think our identity is [as] a pretty tough team.”
OTHERS WORTH WATCHING
Wright takes aim at No. 400: No. 1 Villanova gets its toughest road test of the season to date with a Saturday afternoon trip to Butler. A win against the Bulldogs would give Jay Wright his 400th victory as the Wildcats’ head coach. He got to Philadelphia in 2001 and is on the verge of tying the program's high-water mark of a 14-0 start set last year. Mikal Bridges & Co. are hitting on all cylinders as December draws to a close but have played in only three true road contests so far.
Florida State: The Seminoles haven’t allowed more than 71 points in a game during December while working their way toward a No. 24 ranking in the AP poll. Their only loss of the season came in a one-point game against Oklahoma State, but the defense will have a much tougher time against Duke to start ACC play this Saturday. The Blue Devils have been working through some defensive issues in the past several weeks. If Florida State can put up a good fight at Cameron Indoor, it will be safe to consider them yet another impressive layer of depth in the league this season.
Streak on the line: Amid all the excitement about Oklahoma breakout star Trae Young, it’s been too easy to forget what Jamie Dixon is doing in his second season at TCU. The Horned Frogs have won their past 17 games -- a dozen straight this season and five more to end last season with an NIT championship. Young and the Sooners will provide a litmus test this Saturday afternoon in Fort Worth. Kenrich Williams, the senior guard averaging 14.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game, is planning to play despite a bone bruise on his knee. That injury likely will force Williams to play through some pain for a good chunk of the Big 12 season, which means it’ll be worth watching how the deep roster’s leading scorer and rebounder responds in his team’s toughest game during its lengthy win streak.