Arizona-Arizona State clash in rare Top 25 matchup

The Arizona-Arizona State game on Saturday night figures to be one of the biggest games of the Pac-12 season as the rivals meet as ranked teams for the first time since 1995.

No. 3 Arizona State (12-0) has been the most surprising team in college basketball, while No. 17 Arizona (10-3) is riding a seven-game winning streak after dropping three straight in the Bahamas at the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in late November.

The shoe is on the other foot for Sean Miller’s Arizona squad as it typically is the big dog when it matches up with its in-state rival, but ASU head coach Bobby Hurley has found the right mix this season and is bringing a fast-paced, 3-point shooting team into Tucson..

The last time the two teams were ranked heading into this matchup was on the final day of the 1995 regular season, when Arizona was 12th and Arizona State was 18th.

The rivalry can certainly lead to bad blood at times, but Miller has been heaping praise on Hurley and the Sun Devils heading into Saturday’s contest, calling them the “heavy favorite” to win the Pac-12 as both teams open conference play.

“There’s not really any easy answers in terms of playing against Arizona State,” Miller said.

“They have one of those offenses that you don’t often times see. They have great firepower, and to me the most revealing statistic that they have going for them is just their ability to score from the free-throw line. They’re the furthest thing from just this small team that shoots threes.”

Arizona heads into the game with three players averaging double figures. Guard Allonzo Trier is averaging 21.2 points per game. Wing Rawle Alkins is averaging 16.0 points in four games back from a foot injury. Freshman big man DeAndre Ayton (19.5 points, 11.4 rebounds) will present the toughest challenge for the Sun Devils, but by this point in the year Hurley’s team has certainly become battle tested, including wins over Xavier and Kansas.

“It’s a big challenge, but this is this season,” Hurley said of his team’s yearly visit to Tucson.

“What we’ve done speaks for itself, and it gives me confidence as a coach to go to most places we’re going to have to go because of what the guys have given me this year. When you have two of the best point guards in college basketball on your team, and they’re seniors who have been through a lot of big games, then you’re excited to go anywhere and play anybody.”

Arizona State has a veteran team led by those two point guards, Tra Holder and Shannon Evans II, with both players averaging more than 17 points and 4.5 assists. Holder’s 21.3 points and 4.8 assists lead the way for the Sun Devils, who average 91.8 points per game (fourth in the nation heading into Friday night’s game), shoot 39.9 percent from 3-point range and attack so relentlessly that they average a national-best 29.9 free throws per game.

Arizona has a height advantage in the post, but Arizona State has been boosted by the addition of 6-7 Ohio State transfer Mickey Mitchell at the semester break, while redshirt freshman post Romello White (14.9 ppg, 8.6 rpg) has been a needed force down low.

“In my mind one of the most understated players on their team and a big concern for anybody that plays them is Romello White,” Miller said. “He’s a big guy that has fantastic hands and rebounds and gives them an inside presence that makes what they do even that much more difficult to defend.”