Confident Sun Devils Seek Revenge

It's been four weeks since the Sun Devils and Wildcats last squared off on the hardwood but it feels even longer. ASU opened conference play by dropping three of their first five contests, punctuated by their 91-68 dismantling by Arizona at the McKale Center, but has since then rebounded to win five of their last six games climbing up the Pac-12 and re-igniting their NCAA tournament aspirations.

Fresh off their home sweep of the Oregon schools last weekend in Tempe, Arizona State (18-6, 7-4 Pac-12) gets set for the latest in its revolving door of weekly challenges, a rematch with second rank Arizona on Friday.

When the two teams met last month, the Sun Devils looked like a team on the verge of imploding, trailing by 14 at halftime and by as many as 27 points late in the second half.

The Arizona State starting line-up, with the exception of point guard Jahii Carson who scored a team-high 20 points in the loss, shot a collective 5-24 for a combined 21 points. Arizona countered with seven players in double figures scoring as they overwhelmed the Sun Devils on both ends of the floor.

The Wildcats dominated ASU inside, outscoring the Sun Devils 38-18 in the paint while out-rebounding the under-sized and under-manned visitors by nine, leading to 17 second chance points.

"We certainly didn't play a very good game when we played in Tucson," said Head Coach Herb Sendek on Wednesday following the team's practice. "We missed Jermaine Marshall not being in the line-up. Jordan Bachynski got into early foul trouble and only ended up playing a little more than 20 minutes in the game and didn't score a field goal.

"You look back and you watch the film from the first time we played Arizona and then you fast-forward to this past weekend and we're a much different team. But you need that just to stay even because everybody is getting better. When you practice and you watch film and you're playing at this level of competition every day, you can't help but get better."

But rather than packing it in after the loss, the Sun Devils re-grouped with Sendek inserting 6-10 sophomore Eric Jacobsen into the starting line-up in place of junior Jon Gilling, giving Arizona State more size in its frontcourt and additional scoring off the bench.

The Sun Devils enter the week having won five of their last six games, including four in a row at Wells Fargo Arena where they're 13-1 on the year, and with renewed energy.

"We've been playing well the last couple of games so we have confidence," said Carson. "I know a lot of guys, before they play (Arizona), see their roster on paper and they're shocked about how many guys they have that are so good but now I think that guys aren't afraid of them.

"They've got to guard us and defend us too, so I feel like everyone's confidence is pretty high and that's one thing you need when you play against a team like that, to not be afraid and have great confidence."

Aside from the familiarity of having already played against the Wildcats earlier this season, Arizona State will also be with senior Jermaine Marshall, who missed the last meeting with a groin injury.

Marshall, who's averaging 15.6 points per game this season, has upped his scoring to 20.2 points over the team's last four outings with 12 made three point baskets, providing the Sun Devils with another offensive weapon to complement their speedy point guard and combat the Wildcat backcourt.

"Yeah, they're pretty good but I think we've got one that's pretty good too and they've got to guard us as well," Carson remarked. "Last time I had one of my running mates out so they didn't get to see him, but this time we're going to come full (throttle) for them and we'll see how they can defend us."

For the season, the Sun Devils are averaging 77.1 points per game but will surely be put to the test once again on Friday by the vaunted Wildcat defense.

Arizona (23-1, 10-1 Pac-12), which is 7-1 this season away from the McKale Center and 5-1 in true road games, ranks fourth nationally in scoring defense (57.0) and seventh in field goal defense (.378).

The Wildcats are also first in the country in two point field goal defense (.407), led by junior Nick Johnson, one of the Pac-12's top defenders.

"They don't give you anything easy," commented Sendek. "There's nothing at the basket and they rarely give you a second shot. They're long, they're athletic, they play from the inside out, and they play with a degree of toughness.

"They have arguably the best defensive player on the perimeter in our league in Nick Johnson, who night in and night out does a great job on the other team's top perimeter player. They're well-built, both athletically and schematically on defensive, and they're tough to score against."

Arizona though will be without forward Brandon Ashley who broke his foot two weeks ago in the Wildcats' only loss of the season at California. The sophomore was part of a starting Arizona frontcourt that combined for 38 points on 16-30 shooting and 19 rebounds against the Sun Devils last month.

"He's a terrific player and anytime you lose a guy like that it's a tough blow," said Sendek. "If any team could absorb that kind of loss though, it's Arizona. They just inserted Hollis-Jefferson into the line-up, who was last year rated as one of the top 10 players in the nation, and I think is on his own trajectory toward an NBA career.

"Whenever you've got a guy that scores and rebounds and does that much on the floor for you, it'll definitely change the game for them," added Carson. "I think they're a good team and they're not going to let that distract them but we're definitely going to try to utilize that to our advantage."

Arizona State will look to counter the Wildcats in the post with their own imposing duo of Jacobsen and Bachynski, who was named the Pac-12 player of the week on Wednesday.

Bachynski became the conference's all-time blocked shots leader last Thursday, surpassing former Arizona forward Anthony Cook. Bachynski averaged 21.5 points, 12 rebounds and eight blocked shots last week against the Beavers and Ducks and for the season is averaging career-highs in points (12.2), rebounds (9.1) and blocks (4.5).

"Basketball is up and down; sometimes guys are playing great and other times guys are playing not as good but right now his confidence is on cloud nine and I'm trying to give him even more confidence," said Carson. "I'm going to feed him the basketball. That's what we've got to do, is feed him the basketball.

"I've said this all year long, that if there's a more improved player over the span of the last four years in college basketball, I certainly haven't seen it," added Sendek. "Given where he started from as a freshman to where he is now is absolutely mind-boggling."

If Arizona State can pull off the upset over Arizona on Friday, it'll mark the highest rated opponent the Sun Devils have ever beaten on their home court (previously #3 USC, 1971) and their first win over a top-five team since defeating the Wildcats 77-74 in 1992.

"It is a big game for us," concluded Sendek. "It's an exciting time for the fans. Everybody loves rivalry games. As far as we're concerned though, we have to prepare like we do for every game.

"We've got to play with poise and composure as well as execute. It just seems, for different reasons, we're always talking about the next game being a big game, but that's just part of territory."

Friday's tip-off is set for 7:00 pm and will be broadcast nationally on ESPN. Dave Pasch and Hall of Famer Bill Walton will have the call. Friday's game is officially sold out as of Tuesday afternoon.

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