The setup was perfect for Arizona State, which arrived at McKale Center primed, poised, inspired and eager.
Unbeaten? Sure. Throw that in, too. The nation’s only unbeaten team.
You expected a menacing Sun Devil team to come along one of these years, and Saturday night was that night.
Most of those guys in maroon and gold were fully unfamiliar to UA fans, who probably didn’t know the difference between Romello Martin and Remy White and Romeo and Juliet.
Or whatever their names are.
But by bedtime, after 14,644 people finally exhaled — limp from two hours of tension — the Wildcats and their fans got it straight: ASU, steely and full of nerve, isn’t just in the middle of a breakthrough season.
They have broken through.
The Wildcats won 84-78 and a few minutes later, wearing a Sun Devil backpack and sweating like a guy who’d just finished a 10K, Bobby Hurley said, “It was a lot of fun.”
“You live to be in these games,” he said.
Arizona State hasn’t been in games like the one Saturday at McKale Center for forever. OK, not forever, but 1981 was the last time it was on the radar for more than a few blips.
Hurley referred to the road ahead as “a marathon” and unless someone like Tra Holder or Remy Martin gets hurt or joins the Marines, the Sun Devils are going to reach the finish line at — it says here — at 15-3 or 16-2 in the Pac-12 and in the scrum for a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
This is not a team that’s going to have a letdown on some Thursday night in Oregon or Washington and blow one. They are too hard to guard.
It’s so funny that ASU began marketing “Guard U” T-shirts, which seemed to step on the pride of long-standing Arizona fans, who remember when the Wildcats were Point Guard U.
But that Guard U stuff is not totally accurate. It should be “Can’t Guard U,” because almost nobody in the Pac-12 is going to be able to successfully stop the Sun Devils from scoring 80 or 90 points and staying in the Top 10 until Selection Sunday.
It’s a tribute to Sean Miller’s developing Wildcats that they surely pitched their best stuff on Saturday, their best defensive game since last March. Anything less wouldn’t have been enough.
The Sun Devils shot just 8 for 25 from 3-point distance, or 32 percent. They earned their reputation and ranking by putting up the kind of shooting numbers you only see on license plates.
They stunned Kansas by swishing 14 of 28 3-balls, and they routed Xavier by drilling 13 of 27 3-pointers. About the only way to beat Arizona State this year will be to hope that Shannon Evans shoots 0 for 6 from 3-point range and Kodi Justice 2 for 8, as they did Saturday.
If either of those snipers had made even one more 3-ball, or been a little more on their game, the Sun Devils would likely have jumped past Michigan State and Villanova to No. 1 this week.
“I’ll go to the end with Shannon Evans and Kodi shooting 3s,” said Hurley. “We didn’t play our best offensive game, but give Arizona a lot of credit for its desire to defend.”
As good as ASU is, it was one of the few times in history that a victory over the No. 3 team in the country wasn’t an upset. Arizona has played the role of punching bag long enough; the Bahamas thing is history.
Arizona has now won 11 games and it took everything Deandre Ayton and Allonzo Trier had to win No. 11.
“Good things happen when the ball is in Deandre’s hands,” said Miller.
Hurley agreed: “What he does is pretty special.”
Sun Devil point guard Tra Holder, who scored 31 points, didn’t seem fazed by Ayton’s 23-point, 19-rebound double-double.
“He should do that,” Holder said, and then shrugged.
Trier opened the night 0 for 6 from the field. He floated around the 3-point line looking for his shot but finally, when the game turned in the second half, he went to his out-pitch, the dribble-and-drive, forcing ASU to foul him, killing the clock, and, ultimately, killing the Sun Devils.
ASU has won just four games at McKale dating to 1984, and all of them came packaged with an excuse. In 1995, three Arizona starters, including All-American point guard Damon Stoudamire, didn’t play. In 2008 and 2009, Arizona was coached by Kevin O’Neill and Russ Pennell, so, c’mon, that doesn’t really count.
And in 2010, Miller was in his first Arizona season, playing with leftovers. Since then he is 7-0.
Hurley has ushered in a new era. As long as he remains in Tempe, the annual scorching of the Sun Devils at McKale has probably ended. Expect to feel the way you did when Stanford and UCLA played at McKale in the ’90s.
Martin, who is listed at 6 feet 1 inch but probably isn’t 6-feet unless he’s wearing logging boots, is typical of the new Sun Devil. He reminds me of former Washington dynamo Nate Robinson, an inexhaustible, always-in-high-gear, size-doesn’t-matter turbo-athlete who never retreats.
That’s also Hurley’s personality, and now it is the way ASU plays basketball.
Late last week, Miller prefaced his comments about the Sun Devils by saying “we’re 10-3; we know who we are. We are supposed to win every game, and that’s what all of us signed up for.”
I thought that was Miller’s way of saying, “We’re back.”
So, yes, the Wildcats are back and the Sun Devils have arrived. The rematch in Tempe on Feb. 15 is likely to determine the Pac-12 champion.
Times have sure changed. Don’t you just love it?