Ever since ASU knocked off Kansas a few weeks ago and Arizona woke up from its Bahamian slumber around the same time, the anticipation has kept building.
When Arizona hosts ASU Saturday at McKale Center, it’ll be the first time the instate rivals have played when both are ranked since 1994-95, and a historically reverse matchup at that: ASU is the big boy at No. 3, while UA is climbing back up the polls at No. 17.
The matchup provides a glaring contrast in skillsets, too: ASU will put its “Guard U” aggressiveness and efficiency against Arizona’s combination of size and power.
And the coaches? Both were highly regarded college point guards themselves: ASU’s Bobby Hurley and UA’s Sean Miller.
All this is true. So it’s big.
But there are also reasons to believe Saturday’s game is not really that big.
1. It’s still December
Because of how the NCAA Tournament tends to define college basketball seasons, it might be hard to say any one game held before March is truly critical. Especially one held before New Year’s Day, when RPIs, power ratings and bracket projections still figure to change wildly.
Plus, in the case of Saturday’s game, it’s just the Pac-12 opener for both Arizona and ASU. Both teams will likely be tested at Utah and Colorado next week and, by the time they meet again on Feb. 15, the shape of the conference race could give their rivalry a much different look.
There’s just too much more basketball remaining.
“We have played other games of meaning,” UA coach Sean Miller said. “We have to do a good job in this game just like we always have, and if our best isn’t good enough, we have 17 games and, believe it or not, we’re gonna get on the plane and go to Utah.”
And even as Miller says the Wildcats’ respect for the Sun Devils is “immense” these days, ASU’s struggles in league play during Hurley’s first two seasons have him carrying some caution into the weeks ahead.
The Sun Devils were 5-13 in 2015-16 in Pac-12 play and 7-11 last season.
“We’ve had a couple of tough years in the Pac-12,” Hurley said at an ASU news conference Thursday. “You’ve got to reflect on that before you start this season in the Pac-12. You’ve got to remember back to two years ago, last year.”
2. It’s not football
Unlike the football Territorial Cup, which is played only after tensions have simmered for an entire year, the Wildcats and Sun Devils will meet again in just six weeks ... and, if both confine playing well, maybe they’ll meet for a third time in the Pac-12 Tournament semifinals or finals.
It doesn’t behoove anyone to get too hot over any one game.
“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 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.”
3. It’s ‘not an ESPN game’
With all due respect to the Pac-12 Networks, with its solid on-air talent and production, it doesn’t have the reach of the ESPN networks, which negotiates along with Fox which Pac-12 games it would like to pluck out of the conference schedule every season.
Neither network picked this game. ESPN didn’t pick any Pac-12 games this weekend while FS1 will show Cal against Stanford.
That could be because of football games still airing or ... because nobody saw the Sun Devils’ success coming.
Not even UA forward Rawle Alkins.
“To be honest, no,” Alkins said. “That’s why the game is on Pac-12 (Networks) and not an ESPN game.”
4. The NCAA could say
it never happened
Arizona’s actions this season have indicated it has levied sufficient punishment for breaking NCAA rules to assistant coach Mark Phelps (two games) and Keanu Pinder (one game), while the school moving to fire assistant coach Book Richardson in the wake of his federal bribery and fraud charges.
But the FBI investigation into college basketball remains ongoing, as is an independent review UA has commissioned, so there’s still a possibility the Wildcats could face future NCAA issues.
That, in turn, could lead to any number of penalties that might include vacating games. UA last did so in 2007-08, when the Wildcats gave up 18 wins and officially went 0-14 because two players they used during that season (Jerryd Bayless and Jamelle Horne) were later ruled ineligible.
5. This is Arizona
Just like that splashy McKale Center video intro would have you believe, all Wildcat games are big in a sense. Because even lesser teams tend to play their best against UA, hoping for a marquee win that will boost their profile.
In the next few weeks, for example, Arizona will host the Sun Devils, and then attempt the high-altitude Rocky Mountain swing, where the Wildcats were swept the last time through, in 2015-16. After that, the Wildcats will return to host the Oregon schools for the first time since the Ducks snapped a 49-game homecourt win streak in 2015-16, and take a Bay Area trip the following week.
The beat goes on. And the target never comes off the Wildcats’ backs.
“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.”