Arizona St.-Arizona Preview

There was a familiar problem that popped up quite consistently during Arizona’s nonconference schedule, and it finally cost Sean Miller’s team in its last game before opening Pac-12 play.

The story was the same the last time it saw Arizona State.

After free-throw shooting played a major role in their first loss of the season, the eighth-ranked Wildcats hope to be more accurate Sunday as they look for a 30th straight home victory while avenging a wild loss to the Sun Devils last season.

Lousy shooting from the charity stripe was a constant theme for Arizona (12-1) last season, when it ranked 296th in the nation at 65.9 percent.

Aaron Gordon, the worst of the bunch, is gone to the NBA but the Wildcats’ free-throwing shooting woes didn’t go with him. Arizona shot 64.9 percent from the line in nonconference play, and shot 16 of 27 (59.3 percent) Dec. 23 in a 71-67 loss at UNLV.

The most frustrating part for the Wildcats is that they’re getting plenty of practice. Only five teams in the nation average more free-throw attempts than Arizona’s 27.6.

"We’re not in a good rhythm," Miller said. "We have so many individuals who feel they haven’t shot it well. When they take the foul line they take it almost like they need to correct something that hasn’t worked."

That was the case last season against Arizona State (8-5), as the Wildcats went 31 of 58 (53.4 percent) from the free-throw line. It didn’t cost them in a 91-68 win in Tucson on Jan. 16, but going 16 for 30 in Tempe a month later contributed greatly to a 69-66 loss in double overtime.

The other current concern for Arizona – one that was almost never an issue in 2013-14 with Gordon around – is rebounding. The Wildcats were outrebounded 39-31 in an overtime win over then-No. 9 Gonzaga on Dec. 6 and were overwhelmed on the boards against UNLV, 46-33.

Arizona’s grabbing just 32.1 percent of its available offensive rebounds, ninth in the Pac-12. No one in the conference was better than the Wildcats’ 34.2 percent last season.

"That’s astonishing," Miller said. "We’ve talked about it but I don’t think we’ve done a good job as a coaching staff to holding our players accountable and (getting) the most out of it what we can.

"Getting second-chance points is so important."

Last season’s meetings were complete mismatches on the boards, as Arizona – first in the conference in rebounding differential – held a 93-65 edge on the Sun Devils, who were last in that category.

The margin should be considerably slimmer this time. Arizona State is at plus-5.7 on the boards through 13 games, with a 40-23 advantage over Harvard in a 56-46 win last Sunday its largest edge yet.

The Sun Devils will need the muscle of Savon Goodman and Eric Jacobsen down low, as they’re still struggling to replace their top three scorers from a year ago. They’re shooting 44.0 percent – 32.5 from 3-point range – over the past five games after knocking down 48.7 overall and 42.1 from long distance over the first eight.

Arizona’s Brandon Ashley missed the loss to Arizona State last season after finishing with 10 points, five rebounds and four assists in the win, but the junior has looked fully recovered from his foot surgery while averaging 11.7 points and shooting 52.9 percent thus far.

The bigger concern for the Sun Devils might be a player they’ve yet to face. Freshman Stanley Johnson leads the Wildcats in both points (14.5) and rebounds (6.8) per game, and he’s also shooting 43.2 percent on 37 attempts from 3-point range.