After finishing dead last in the Pac-10 with a 4-14 record in 2010-11, Herb Sendek's team was voted as the ninth best team in the new Pac-12. That projection may be tough to live up to for the Sun Devils, who recently lost freshman sensation Jahii Carson, a four-star point guard and the gem of the 2011 recruiting class.
A game against Arizona may not be the best opponent to start Pac-12 play against, as ASU is just 1-3 in its four games against the Wildcats in the Sean Miller era.
As a freshman, Keala King came to Tempe with a lot of hype surrounding him as the nation's 79th best player in the class of 2010. He averaged just 3.7 points per game as a freshman, but he appears to have turned things around in his second year with the program.
The 6-foot-4, 201-pound sophomore is the leading scorer for ASU through 12 games this season, averaging 14.2 points on 50.9 percent shooting from the field in 32.9 minutes per outing. He's the team's third-leading rebounder with 5.3 boards per game, but he's struggled a bit with turnovers, giving it up nearly four times per outing.
A lefty that has the versatility to score from both inside and out, he'll be the focal point of the Arizona defense on Saturday and will have to have one of his best games of the season to keep ASU in the game. He's already led the team in scoring six times this year, and a major scoring outing will be vital to any chances Arizona State may have.
Alongside King in the backcourt is Trent Lockett, the team's most decorated player. The 6-foot-4, 210-pound junior earned All Pac-10 Freshman Team in 2009-10 and Second Team All-Pac-10 recognition in 2010-11. He may be on his way to more awards in his third season, as his numbers this year are better than his previous year's statistics.
Lockett is the team's second leading scorer and rebounder with 13.8 points and 6.9 rebounds per game, and at 42.3 percent from three-point range is ASU's best shooter from behind the arc. He'll be another key component for Arizona State in its pursuit of victory, and after averaging 13.5 points in the team's two meetings last season, Arizona will look to neutralize Lockett by any means necessary.
Although Lockett is the best shooter statistically, the Sun Devils have a perhaps better pure shooter in 6-foot-5, 216-pound sophomore Chanse Creekmur, who is hitting on 34.3 percent of his three-point tries. He's averaging just 4.1 points per game, but Creekmur has shown no hesitation to put up three-point attempts whenever given an open look.
In the frontcourt, 6-foot-6, 196-pound junior Carrick Felix has been forced to play a very high amount of minutes through 12 games, as he averages 33.9 minutes per outing. In that time, Felix is the team's third leading scorer with 10.7 points per contest on 43.5 percent shooting. With 4.4 boards per game, Felix ranks fourth on the team in rebounding.
Felix is more of a three than a four, and as a result he often times has matchup problems with bigger opponents. It will be interesting to see how he and the rest of the ASU responds to a matchup against fellow undersized four-man Solomon Hill.
Joining Felix in the front court and rounding out the starting lineup is 6-foot-7, 210-pound sophomore Kyle Cain, who is the team's leading rebounder with 7.1 rebounds per game. He's also the team's fourth leading scorer at 9.3 points per outing on 49.4 percent shooting from the field.
Like Felix, Cain is often undersized as the team's largest player on the court. His matchup against Arizona forward Jesse Perry will pit him against another player who is playing a bit out of his standard position, and a deciding factor in the game will likely be how well Felix and Cain respond to the skill sets of Hill and Perry.
Sendek's leading scorer off the bench is 6-foot-3, 200-pound junior Chris Colvin, who is in his first year with the program after spending two seasons at Palm Beach Community College. Colvin, who prepped at Whitney Young High School in Chicago, is averaging 5.9 points in 22.6 minutes off the bench, but he's shooting just 29 percent from the field and 26.3 percent from three-point range.
The Sun Devils have two of the biggest players in the Pac-12 in 7-foot, 231-pound junior Ruslan Pateev and 7-foot-2, 243-pound sophomore Jordan Bachynski, but the two combine for just 6.6 points and 5.5 rebounds in 24.9 minutes. Bachynski is the more skilled of the two, and Pateev is returning from a one-game suspension for punching a Southern Mississippi player in the back of the head on December 19th.
Finally, 6-foot-7, 219-pound Dutch forward Jonathan Gilling was recruited to ASU to be a threat from beyond the arc, and so far he's done a good job, connecting on 38.1 percent (8-21) of his three-point tries. For the season, Gilling is shooting 44.4 percent from the field and in 11.4 minutes per game is averaging just 3.4 points.
The matchup against Arizona State is a very interesting one, as it pits two teams that are very undersized against one another. Of the schools in the Pac-12, ASU might matchup best against UA, who likely will not use a player above 6-foot-9 in its rotation. As a result, despite the losing streak, the Sun Devils may like their chances against Arizona more than they normally would with their current roster.
Anything can happen in a rivalry game, and Sean Miller's team would do itself a service by ignoring ASU's record and entering the game with the right mindset. Undoubtedly, Miller and his team will be looking to put the wraps on a successful calendar year of 2011, and there is no better way of doing that than by beating your archrival to open Pac-12 play.