The 18th-ranked Wildcats are still playing for a conference championship and a bye in the Pac-12 tournament Saturday when it hosts the Sun Devils, who sorely need a signature win to bolster their resume.
Arizona has won 13 of the last 16 meetings in Tucson, including two straight by double digits, and posted a 71-54 victory at Arizona State on Jan. 19. That was the Sun Devils’ fourth loss in five matchups overall and 11th in a row when the Wildcats have been ranked.
The Wildcats (23-6, 11-6) are 13-2 at home but have lost two straight overall and four of seven as they cling to hopes of a shared Pac-12 championship - kept alive after unexpected losses by UCLA, California and Oregon earlier this week. Besides beating its archrival Saturday, Arizona needs UCLA to lose at Washington and Oregon to fall at Utah for a share of the conference title. But a loss combined with a Colorado win over Oregon State would see the Wildcats finish fifth and miss out on a first-round bye in next week’s conference tournament.
For the Sun Devils (20-10, 9-8), their NCAA tournament bubble hopes may be fading quickly after three straight losses and no impressive out-of-conference victories to hang their hat on. A win Saturday and a decent run in the Pac-12 tournament may be the only way to salvage a bid.
One of Arizona State’s worst performances - a season-low point total and 39.1 percent shooting - came in the first meeting with Arizona. The Wildcats, though, have had some trouble on defense lately.
They were was picked apart in an 89-78 loss at Southern California on Feb. 27, as the Trojans shot 61.1 percent - the highest by an opponent since 2006. In a 74-69 loss at UCLA last Saturday, they tied a season low by forcing nine turnovers and allowed 46.8 percent shooting - still far from the level they’ve played for most of the season. Opponents are averaging 63.6 points on 41.4 percent shooting.
“We just worried about defense,” senior Kevin Parrom said. “It showed a little bit. We have to improve on defense and we got better today on defense.”
While Parrom has given Arizona’s offense a lift, averaging 15.3 points over the last three games on 71.4 percent shooting, Brandon Ashley has all but disappeared. The freshman forward scored in double figures in five of eight games before totaling nine points over the last three.
This will be senior night for Parrom as well as leading scorers Mark Lyons and Solomon Hill. Lyons had 24 points, one off a season high, in the first meeting with the Sun Devils but enters the rematch in a 7-for-31 slump from 3-point range.
A 1-of-12 performance from beyond the arc cost the Sun Devils in a 57-56 loss at USC on Saturday. Jahii Carson had 23 points, but his potential game-winning heave at the buzzer was off the mark.
Carson, who scored 22 against Arizona, may be the biggest reason the Sun Devils’ tournament hopes haven’t been completely shattered. He is the second-leading freshman scorer in the country with 17.8 points per game, including 21.5 in eight Pac-12 road games.
The 5-foot-10 guard could use more help from Carrick Felix and Evan Gordon. While Felix is averaging 14.0 points, he’s been held under nine in two of the last three games while going 2 for 13 from 3-point range, and Gordon has been shut out in two straight despite averaging 10.2 points.