The Sultan of Swish did this Thursday night:
He hit a 3-pointer with 9:40 remaining in the first half.
He buried another 3-pointer at 9:13.
And again with a 3-pointer at 8:25.
Arizona led ASU 29-12 and exasperated Sun Devil coach Bobby Hurley called a timeout.
Can you imagine the conversation in the huddle?
“Would someone guard that guy?”
“Does Joe Caldwell have any eligibility?”
“He’d do a better job than you guys are doing.”
On a night UA fans hoped to watch the 2017 debut of the ’Zo Show, it was Lauri Markkanen, the Finnish Sultan of Swish, who scored 30 points and put a 24-hour block on worries about still-missing-in-action Allonzo Trier.
No ’Zo? No problem.
The Zona Zoo chanted “LOWW-REE! LOWW-REE!” all night, much louder than they booed Hurley, which was a good thing. Arizona won 91-75. It wasn’t that close.
“We were ready,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said with emphasis.
That’s probably what Muhammad Ali said after a first-round knockout in 1965.
Arizona hasn’t marketed a nickname for any of its basketball players since the 1994 Final Four, when guards Damon Stoudamire and Kahlid Reeves became Thunder and Lightning. Now, a generation later, it’s the Sultan of Swish and the Paint King, Markkanen’s 7-foot partner, Dusan Ristic, who scored 16 points and helped to put the Sun Devils in an early basketball grave.
Asked if Swish and the Paint King made the difference, Hurley all but rolled his eyes.
“Pretty much, yeah,” he said.
Markkanen isn’t the first Arizona freshman to score 30 against the Sun Devils; Jerryd Bayless scored 39 against ASU in 2008, but the Sun Devils won that game at McKale. They were meaningless points on a scoreboard.
On Thursday, Markkanen made every move count. He played 30 minutes, scored 30 points and didn’t commit a turnover.
About the only flaw in his game was failing to see Ristic, wide open for a layup, when Arizona led 57-41. Markkanen shot instead, missing from 20-feet.
“C’mon, Lauri,” Ristic shouted as they ran down court. “I was open.”
So was Markkanen.
After the game, as if he hadn’t done enough, Markkanen sat for an interview with ESPN’s Bill Walton, handled five minutes of questions from reporters in the school’s media office, and then met a writer from Finland’s Ilta-Sanomat newspaper for a 10-minute Q&A session in a McKale Center lobby.
About all that needed to be said was condensed into three words by Miller: “Lauri was spectacular.”
For 30 years, and again Thursday, the most telling difference between the basketball programs at Arizona and ASU is the ability to succeed on the road.
The Sun Devils weren’t prepared for the energy at McKale, which Miller almost put to poetry, saying “the way McKale felt tonight.”
Arizona led 14-2 and the Sun Devils were glassy-eyed.
“That’s a different type of environment, something we haven’t seen this season besides San Diego State,” said ASU point guard Tra Holder. “It took us a while to get our feet wet.”
Since Lute Olson was hired in 1983, Arizona is now 189-110 in conference road games, a winning percentage of 63.2.
In the same period, ASU is 93-207, or 31 percent.
That’s the difference between the programs, and it showed on Thursday. Incredibly, the Sun Devils have had winning conference road records only three times in 35 years (1995, 2009 and 2010).
Before you can win a game like the one at McKale on Thursday, the culture of your program has to change. That is Hurley’s charge and it’s an overwhelming project. Inconceivably, the Sun Devils opened the season losing 82-63 to an awful Northern Iowa team, one that is just 5-11 this season.
On Thursday, Hurley said: “We never got it to a margin we could put any significant game pressure on them.”
Maybe in Tempe on March 4. Holder added that he also hopes to get “a crack” at Arizona in the Pac-12 tournament. But that’s a story for another day.
The Sun Devils have four perimeter players — Holder, Shannon Evans II, Obinna Oleka and Torian Graham — who can play and produce for any team in America. But until Hurley can successfully recruit someone over 6 feet 6 inches tall who can earn 30 minutes a game and put a hand in the face of someone like Markkanen or Ristic, the Sun Devils will have difficulty breaking .500 in the Pac-12.
On Thursday, ASU was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The energy at McKale on Thursday was suitable for a game matching Top 10 teams, but that was predictable because there hasn’t been a single second of suspense at McKale all season.
UCLA won’t show up at McKale for another 43 days. Perhaps that’s enough time for Allonzo Trier to get back in uniform and form a Big 3 with the Sultan of Swish and the Paint King.