But the degree of difficulty was compounded when Arizona State went into McKale Center on Thursday night without shooting guard Jermaine Marshall, one of its best players, and the outcome was not pretty.
Unbeaten Arizona 91, the Sun Devils 65.
At the same time, it is not as if one more player would have made much of difference.
Arizona has a long, athletic and physical frontcourt and guards that can score on the perimeter, and it probably will be favored in every game it plays the rest of the season, certainly until the later rounds NCAA tournament, if it avoids an early-round upset.
Sun Devils, meet the monster.
The Wildcats have an NBA-sized frontline — 7-foot Kaleb Tarczewski, 6-9 Aaron Gordon and 6-8 Brandon Ashley — and an aggressive sixth man in 6-7 Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. It makes for a crowded paint.
While Jordan Bachynski had three blocked shots to increase his NCAA Division I total to 81 this season, Arizona’s relentlessness was impossible to overcome. Arizona had 38 points in the paint and 17 second-chance points thanks to a nine-rebound advantage. It still has not been outrebounded in a game this season.
"They are very well-balanced. Their size is a factor," ASU coach Herb Sendek said. "They are hard to score against in a half-court when their defense is set. They play tremendous half-court defense, and it’s hard to get anything at the basket."
ASU attempted to counter that size with an up-tempo game game plan, and at times it worked. Jahii Carson had a game-high 20 points, mostly on drives to the basket for baskets or free throws, and Shaquielle McKissic (10 points) had several drives to the basket. Bo Barnes had three late 3-points and 13 points.
The loss of Marshall, who suffered a groin injury in practice Tuesday, was noticeable. He is averaging 15.6 points a game and had 11 3-pointers in the first four Pac-12 games. His presence keeps teams from sagging on Carson.
"I was attacking like I normally do, but it is a little bit easier when he is out there hitting threes and they have to contest his jumpers and he is able to make plays himself," said Carson who was 7-for-19 from the field. "It’s really tough when he is averaging 15, 16 points a game and he can’t get that."
"(Marshall) is a very important player for us," Sendek added. "He is a guy who gives us great experience. He has been in those kinds of rivalry games on big stages before. We certainly missed him."
For the Sun Devils, the biggest takeaway was Carson’s return to form. He took the ball to the basket with authority, and even if his shooting percentage was down, he seemed more the All-Pac-12 guard he was last season than the player who was 17 for 51 in his first four league games this year.
"It was just getting a little bit of confidence and swagger back, and I feel like I took a step in the right direction," said Carson, who admitted he had lost some of that during his four-game mini-slump.
" I think I tried to get my teammates involved more and try to do things that I don’t normally do, which took away what has been successful for me, which is driving the basketball and making my teammates better. I definitely think that I was in a slump. I’m never going to say I didn’t play well, and I didn’t play well those two games."
Carson, who had five assists and a steal against two turnovers against Arizona, said the trouble came when he was "not pushing the basketball as fast as I can.
"I wasn’t beating the defense," he said. "I was just looking sluggish out there. I wasn’t looking like I was having any fun out there. It had nothing to do with anybody else. It was just me. and I finally got out of that."
ASU had 18 turnovers and shot only 34 percent, both of which had more to do with Arizona’s defense than anything else.
ASU has lost two straight after its 87-72 loss at UCLA on Sunday, dropping to 13-5, 2-3, the first time it has been below .500 in league play since Carson joined the team last season. They will play Utah and Colorado at home next weekend.
"Definitely," Carson said when asked if he was worried. "When you go on a two-game losing streak, there is always something to be concerned about.
"But I think our guys have showed a lot of energy lately, even though we lost this game pretty badly. I think we have taken a step in the right direction as far as playing harder. Even though we have things to work on, we are going to play harder. I think it’s time we hold each other accountable and time for guys to make plays."