Early Tuesday morning, I walked into the pro shop at the Randolph Golf Complex and Andrew Wack, the man who runs the show, was talking about his up-close tickets to Saturday’s UA-ASU basketball game.
“I’ve been here 35 years,” he said. “This is one of the Big Three.”
I nodded. At worst, it’s in the Fab Four.
To be judged worthy of the Fab Four in McKale Center history is not a throw-away line. It’s like a Yankees fan declaring the ’77 World Series to be better than the ones in ’27 or ’56 or ’98.
These are things you do not say recklessly in a city where basketball is a religion and a big game at McKale Center is treated with reverence.
Can we agree that the Big Three are as follows?
1. No. 7 Duke at No. 9 Arizona, Feb. 24, 1991. The Blue Devils would go 32-7 and win the national championship.
2. No. 2 UCLA at No. 6 Arizona, Jan. 11, 1992. The Wildcats had a 71-game McKale winning streak at stake.
3. No. 8 Stanford at No. 2 Arizona, Feb. 28, 1998. The Cardinal would go 30-5 and reach the Final Four.
Inevitably, after 136 UA-ASU games in Tucson, it is overdue that the Sun Devils and Wildcats will play a basketball game for all time, one to defy the stereotype, one that might go beyond comedian Alec Baldwin’s take on one-sided rivalries in which he says “lawnmowers don’t have a rivalry with grass.”
There is nothing green about Bobby Hurley’s Sun Devils, except maybe envy from the rest of the Pac-12.
On Thursday, Arizona coach Sean Miller was suitably reverent, perhaps a bit over the line. He said the Sun Devils “can win a national championship” and declared them “heavy favorites” to win the Pac-12.
Miller began a discussion of Arizona’s bench players by saying “if we have an opportunity to be in the game …”
Really? If we have an opportunity to be in the game?
It almost makes you think Joe Caldwell, Byron Scott, Fat Lever, James Harden and the ASU All-Century team will be on the court.
This Top 10 stuff has never been easy, not even when Mike Bibby and Damon Stoudamire were at their best. Over the last 25 years, Arizona has been sobered by Top 10 teams from UCLA and Stanford at McKale.
How sobering? Top-10 UCLA teams are 5-4 in Tucson; those at Stanford are 3-3.
Lute Olson rarely resisted extolling the virtues of the Bruins and Cardinal. Sure he was calculated, and at times overstated in building up a big-name opponent so his Wildcats would hunger to take them down.
Miller is similarly cagey. He knows how to play the praise-game and he played it well Thursday.
“Sometimes it’s hard for that other coach to give (a team like ASU) credit; it reflects poorly on you,” he said. “People ask, ‘Why aren’t you ranked higher?’ But (ASU) has earned the right. We are playing them in a game here Saturday with great meaning because of how good they are.”
ASU hired Hurley away from the Buffalo Bulls as recently as April 2015. If anyone says they predicted the Sun Devils would be No. 3 this soon, that’s the real bull.
As it has developed, Hurley is in position to be the most compelling coaching figure in the Pac-12 since Olson. A lot of that will be determined by Hurley’s willingness to stay at ASU, build community support and national respect, and his ability to create a run of championships and not rush off to, say, Louisville or Duke when those positions open.
Hurley has the look and bloodlines of someone who will be a coaching legend, but will that be at ASU or at Duke? Beating Arizona at McKale is almost a requirement to take the next step in that direction.
What makes the potential for a long and meaningful UA-ASU basketball super-rivalry so fascinating is that Miller and Hurley are two of the most willful and determined coaches the Pac-12 has ever seen.
The league’s one irresistible coaching rivalry of the last 50 years – with both coaches in their prime and at their best – was Olson vs. Stanford’s Mike Montgomery. It’s the only one that had much of a shelf life.
Oregon State’s Ralph Miller was ebbing toward retirement when Olson entered the league. UCLA’s scowling Ben Howland was a short-timer and didn’t bump into much interference.
We can only hope that Miller vs. Hurley turns Tucson and Tempe into the West Coast version of Tobacco Road, Mike Krzyzewski vs. Dean Smith.
If Miller is genuinely buying the ASU-has-arrived theory, we’ll never truly know.
On Thursday, he suggested the rivalry of his lifetime has been Xavier vs. Cincinnati. He called it a “bloodbath.”
“You can’t compare that (rivalry) to anything,” he said.
He may reconsider at about 7 p.m. on Saturday.