Preview: Arizona at ASU

Arizona State is back in action this week after a heartbreaking loss in the final seconds of last Friday’s game, which resulted in a split against the Oregon schools. Now Arizona State will use a seven-day layoff to prepare for their next opponent – the sixth-ranked Arizona Wildcats. The two rivals will battle each other in a nationally-televised game Saturday afternoon at Wells Fargo Arena.

Arizona State (11-11, 3-6) has played better in recent weeks, but once again they failed to execute down the stretch in Friday’s 68-67 overtime loss against Oregon. The loss extended a dubious streak for the Sun Devils, who are 0-6 this season in games decided by five points or less. It may sound like a broken record, but poor free-throw shooting and untimely turnovers continue to doom ASU in late-game situations.

In the Oregon loss, the Sun Devils shot a woeful 7 of 15 from the charity stripe and missed the front end of one-and-one situations on multiple occasions. After the game, ASU head coach Herb Sendek told reporters the missed free throws were essentially the difference in the narrow loss.

Saturday’s upcoming game marks the second meeting of the season between the two rivals. In the first meeting on Jan. 4, ASU suffered a resounding 73-49 loss in Tucson. The Sun Devils were dominated from start to finish and were never able to find an offensive rhythm, shooting 32.6 percent from the field, including 5 of 17 from three-point range. However, that game took place during a brief stretch when Sendek experimented with Gerry Blakes at the point guard spot.

Since then, ASU has slowly pulled themselves out of a mid-season offensive funk. One player who has come contributed to the Sun Devils’ turnaround is Tra Holder. The freshman point guard has elevated his play in recent weeks. In the last five games, Holder is averaging 9.8 points, 4.2 assists and 3.4 rebounds per game. He has also become a more willing outside shooter (5 of 15 three-pointers), forcing opponents to respect his jump shot.

Arizona (20-2, 8-1) enters Saturday’s matchup on a roll, winning their last six games. The Wildcats have ratcheted up their effort in conference play, dominating Pac-12 foes by an average of 17 points per contest. Arizona has been equally effective on both sides of the ball. Their defense, which has been a staple under head coach Sean Miller, has been downright stingy. They have held opponents to a mere 55.1 points per game on 40.3 percent shooting from the field in conference play. Offensively, the Wildcats have been equally impressive, scoring nearly 73 points per game, while shooting 48.4 percent from the field.

Arizona’s offensive attack has been led by senior T.J. McConnell. A pass-first type of point guard, McConnell is about as sure-handed as they come with a 3.28 assist-to-turnover ratio, which is best in the Pac-12. He has gotten plenty of help from his backcourt running mate Stanley Johnson. The freshman phenom has taken his game to another level in the last month, averaging 14.6 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. The trio of Kaleb Tarczewski, Brandon Ashley and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson form one of the country’s most talented frontcourts and have provided Arizona with steady play throughout the season. The Wildcats’ well-balanced attack has put them in a good position to secure a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. However, they will likely need an equally strong second half of the Pac-12 season to accomplish that feat.

Probable Starters:

G – Tra Holder (5.6 PPG, 2.9 APG) vs. T.J. McConnell (9 PPG, 5.8 APG)

G – Gerry Blakes (10.2 PPG, 4.1 RPG) vs. Stanley Johnson (14.5 PPG, 7 RPG)

F – Shaq McKissic (11.3 PPG, 1.5 SPG) vs. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (10.9 PPG, 6.3 RPG)

F – Savon Goodman (9.7 PPG, 5.6 RPG) vs. Brandon Ashley (11.3 PPG, 5.2 RPG)

C – Eric Jacobsen (9.5 PPG, 65% FG) vs. Kaleb Tarczewski (8.6 PPG, 59% FG)

Why ASU Can Win: When it comes to rivalry games, logic is often thrown out the window. Sure, ASU is the clear-cut underdog heading into Saturday’s matchup and most would expect a loss to Arizona, who is atop the conference standings. However, crazier things have happened. If the Sun Devils can get hot from beyond the arc, limit their turnovers, and somehow find a way to compete on the boards, they might have a chance to pull off the upset. And let’s not forget that ASU has enjoyed some success in Wells Fargo Arena against Arizona in recent years. The Sun Devils have won four of the last seven meetings at home.

Why Arizona Can Win: Aside from the obvious -- better talent, supreme athleticism, more experience -- the Wildcats are firing on all cylinders at the moment and look like a team that is poised to make a deep run in March. Arizona lost a double-overtime thriller at Wells Fargo Arena last season – and it is unlikely they will overlook the Sun Devils this time around. The Wildcats’ group of veterans have proven they have moxie and can thrive on the big stage. Meanwhile, the Sun Devils’ inexperience has continually plagued them in late-game situations this season. Arizona should run away with the victory on Saturday.

Key Stat: ASU’s free-throw struggles have been well documented, but just how bad is it? Consider this: ASU has shot better than 75 percent from the line in only four games this season.

X-Factor: Three-point shooting. It’s no secret that ASU typically plays better when their outside shots are falling. The Sun Devils will need to continue their recent streak of hot shooting -- they’ve made at least eight three-pointers in six consecutive games -- if they hope to neutralize the Wildcats’ distinct advantage in the paint.

Final Score Prediction: Arizona 74, ASU 61

Game Info:

When: 2:30 p.m. MT

Where: Wells Fargo Arena

TV/Radio: FOX/98.7 FM

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