Didn’t think ASU would be this good at this point? Third-ranked and 12-0?
Neither did Rawle Alkins.
“To be honest, no,” Alkins said. “That’s why the game is on Pac-12 (Networks) and not an ESPN game.”
During a news conference Thursday, Alkins said he thought the Sun Devils were “just rolling right now” and was bracing for a fast-paced game Saturday at McKale Center.
“I’ve seen their 3-point shooting and, kind of like the New Mexico game, how fast they play, and they’re scrappy,” Alkins said.
And if the Sun Devils’ success might be putting pressure on Sean Miller, the UA coach said Thursday he doesn’t have a problem with it.
“They deserve the credit,” Miller said. “Sometimes think coaches have a hard time giving that other coach and program credit. It reflects poorly on you. The better that they do, the more people start asking, `Well, why aren’t you ranked higher? You have more. You do this.’
“They have earned the right to be the No. 3 team. Bobby Hurley and his staff have recruited well, they’ve coached well, they’ve been aggressive in their nonconference scheduling. It looks to me like they’ve had the best crowds at Wells Fargo Arena since I’ve been here and that’s great for them. We’re playing a game here on Saturday with great meaning because of how good they are.”
Miller went on to describe ASU as a legitimate team to win the Pac-12:
“I think they have all the parts, they really do: experience, guard play in college basketball is so important, they have depth at that position – not just quality but different players on different nights who can step up and they play a style and a pace that’s very difficult to play against.
That said, the focus on ASU doesn’t change the way it is for Arizona, Miller said.
“We’re always the heavy favorite in some ways,” Miller said. “We lost three games and it’s a big story. We’re 10-3. We know who we are. We’re supposed to win every game and that’s what all of us signed up for. But in terms of giving Arizona State credit, they deserve all the credit in the world what they’ve done.
Miller said what ASU does is challenging for any defense.
“I don’t care who you have defensively,” he said. “No one’s been able to keep them off the free throw line. We’re the next team in line to give them a test. Our starting guards have to do a good job. Our bench guys who come in have to be able to defend and be responsible.
“In a game like this you can’t be that player who gives up four baskets and says `Coach why’d you take me out?’ You really have to understand this is a very difficult challenge to keep them from having that big night.”
Miller indicated it would take big nights from more than just his starters to handle ASU.
“We’re not sure if we’re a deep team,” he said. “We’re trying to figure out who we should be playing. That’s not because I’m not paying attention to who I want to play. That’s because it’s very difficult to determine who should and that’s not a good thing.
“We have a lot of guys working hard. We’ve had a couple of great practices since we returned. We have that competitive spirit in practice because there’s really no surefire thing once you get past a few players. We’re hoping it separates itself out but it really hasn’t yet and that’s why we need our bench to come in and do a real good job in this game. If we would have an opportunity to compete and have a chance to win this game I think we’ll have a lot of good play from the guys off the bench.”
Maybe Miller's messages are getting through. Alkins said UA's practice on Wednesday was probably its most competitive of the season.
"I think we’re getting better on the defensive end," Alkins said. "Everyone's starting to guard and they’re starting to take it personally."
Alkins has been back in practice for three weeks now, which is one reason Miller said practices are better.
“Rawle practicing is a big deal,” Miller said. “We really haven’t had more than seven or eight practices with him. And when you’re getting ready right away for the next game there’s only so much you can do. Believe me, just having him back every day in practices has made that part of our program better.”
Whatever happens Saturday, Miller made it clear on Wednesday’s Pac-12 call and his Thursday news conference that there is, of course, much more ahead. The Wildcats will have to make the Utah-Colorado road swing next week.
“When this game ends, unlike college football, we’re not going to take the Christmas break and wait til next fall,” Miller said. “There’s a game about five days later and there’s 17 remaining conference games.
“A year ago we lost to UCLA on Senior Night and I don’t know if anything positive was said about us. We responded by going and winning the Pac-12 Tournament and a couple of games in the NCAA Tournament. That was a a growth moment. Maybe on the outside it didn’t feel that way but on our own team it did. That’s the biggest thing about Saturday: Whoever loses can go on and be great and whoever wins, there’s no surefire reason to believe you’re gonna have the opportunity to win the conference.”
Miller began his news conference by addressing the passing of former UA baseball coach Jerry Kindall.
“In my nine years in Tucson my path crossed with him several times -- mostly because he’d stop in and wish me luck,” Miller said. “It became apparent to me when you talk to somebody like him, you were really talking to a special person. Somebody who was really a great guy. His passing affects all of us.”
A memorial for Kindall has been scheduled for Jan. 4.