For once, UA-ASU has meaning for both teams

TUCSON, Ariz. — It might have been coach-speak – Arizona’s Sean Miller and Arizona State’s Herb Sendek each used similar terms — but the two said Saturday’s rivalry game between the Wildcats and Sun Devils will be just another game. Sold out or not.

But that’s not entirely true. It’s as big a game for each team at a time when each needs a big win. And, realistically, each appears to have an equal chance — which hasn’t often been the case.

Timing is everything, and rare has it been in this series when both teams have been good enough for the game to take on significant meaning for each. The first meeting of 2013 is different. For 15-1 Arizona, it’s an opportunity to reaffirm itself as one of the better teams in the country after last week’s first loss and a series of close calls. For 14-3 ASU, it’s a chance to show that it belongs in the NCAA Tournament conversation and is a legitimate rival for state bragging rights.

Both teams are 3-1 in Pac-12 play, and the Sun Devils have already opened some eyes.

“I think that not only are they much improved from a year ago, but I think they’re one of the best teams in our conference,” Miller said this week.

Let the platitudes begin. Is this what the rivalry has come to? Niceties?

But first, there’s the question of whether it is a true rivalry. The players on both teams seem to treat it as one, but if they were being truthful, the Wildcats would admit that a bigger rival comes to town next week when UCLA visits Tucson for what might be the Pac-12 game of the year.

Before that, however, comes the game of the moment, which will take place in sold-out Wells Fargo Arena. Miller wouldn’t bite when asked if it feels like the biggest game between UA and ASU in the four years he’s been in Tucson. Same goes for Sendek, who said, “Whatever the next game is is always your biggest game. You always give everything you have.”

Or so you’d hope.

The crowd will be there. That’s often been the case, but in the recent past, the seats at Wells Fargo have been filled with just as much red as gold. That’s likely to change this time, as the Sun Devils will be facing their highest-ranked opponent at home in five years and have their best team since 2009 — James Harden’s heyday.

“There’s always excitement,” said Sendek, never one to raise the roof on excitement or raise his voice with inflection. “Certainly, I expect the atmosphere on Saturday to be electric, but I always think this game always brings that kind of pageantry and excitement.”

Enjoy the moment, because it hasn’t always been like this.

From 1984-94, the Wildcats went 19-2 against the Sun Devils.

Arizona had the blue chippers; ASU had the purple bruises. Then Mario Bennett showed up and rallied the Sun Devils to three consecutive wins against the Wildcats. Arizona responded by winning 12 straight and 24 of the next 25, including one game in which coach Lute Olson pointed to the scoreboard to tell the nearby ASU student section to simmer down because his team was up more than 20 points and was about to make it worse.

For the last five years, it’s been more competitive. Harden’s arrival and Olson’s exit coincided with a five-game win streak for ASU, a run of success not maintained by the Sun Devils since the late 1970s and early 1980s, when they reeled off nine consecutive wins.

Arizona has gone 4-2 under Miller against Sendek, Miller’s former boss at Miami, Ohio. But the Sun Devils were able to sink the Wildcats’ NCAA tournament hopes a season ago in a surprising 65-63 win at Wells Fargo.

“That ship has sailed,” Miller said, referring to last year’s upset and the impact on this year’s game.

Different team, different time. Each coach agrees.

“The thing you control in this thing is to be as ready as you can to play the very best game that you can,” Miller said. “Hopefully you have the opportunity to win. That’s the name of the game. …

“The bigger picture is to have a successful season. And in our case, it’s to compete for a regular-season conference championship and hopefully go on to do some great things — and recognize that this is an important game for us.”