NCAA Thursday Night Basketball: Arizona/Arizona State Preview

by Big Al Staff

The Thursday night college basketball game on ESPN features two in-state rivals from the Pac-12 dealing with player attrition and game cancellations due to COVID.

Arizona ended their two-game losing streak last Thursday in a 98-64 victory at Oregon State as an 8-point favorite. Freshman Bennedict Mathurn stepped up to score 31 points against the Beavers, taking over the shooting guard starting position for Jemarl Baker, Jr. The senior was scoring 12.0 points-per-game before suffering a season-ending wrist injury in the previous game against UCLA. Mathurin is one of the gems in head coach Sean Miller’s top-five freshman class. He was named Pac-12 Freshman of the Week earlier in the month after scoring 18.5 points-per-game and averaging 8.5 rebounds-per-game against Washington and Washington State.

Miller lost his top-seven scorers from the team that finished 21-11 last season. He returned three players with good pedigrees from last year’s rotation, including a Kentucky transfer in Baker. Miller added a loaded freshman class of seven players, including four-star recruits, and brought in three impact transfers in James Akinjo from Georgetown, Jordan Brown from Nevada, and Terrell Brown from Seattle. Akinjo leads the team by scoring 13.6 points-per-game with three other players averaging double-digits besides the injured Baker. Miller was using a nine-man rotation before the Baker injury. He has some interesting pieces to continue building as he continues to tinker with his starting lineup.

The Wildcats have had seven of their games either postponed or canceled because of COVID. The program also issued a self-imposed postseason ban for this season earlier this month. Miller says his team will stay focused on winning a Pac-12 regular-season title. His team is 10-3 on the year with a 4-3 mark in conference play. Arizona’s highest-profile victory was against Colorado after a soft non-conference campaign.

Miller’s team is the 11th tallest in the nation, led by 7’0 center Christian Koloko who recently entered the starting lineup. The Wildcats are 11th by rebounding 37.1% of their missed shots. Arizona also has the nation’s 17th best free throw rate. Kenpom rates Arizona as the 18th best offensive in adjusted offensive efficiency. The defensive performances remain a work in progress for Miller, with his team ranking 58th by kenpom’s numbers in adjusted defensive efficiency.

Arizona State has lost four games in a row after their 80-79 upset loss at Oregon State on Saturday as a 6-point favorite. That was just the third game for the Sun Devils since December 16th, as four of their last seven scheduled games got postponed because of COVID issues. It took three weeks for head coach Bobby Hurley’s team to play again after getting upset by UTEP, 76-63, despite being a 13-point favorite on December 16th. Arizona State was without four players in their regular rotation, including captain Remy Martin when they returned to the court on January 7th against UCLA. Yet the undermanned group took the Bruins to overtime before losing, 81-75. Hurley was still missing those four players two days later in a 73-64 loss to USC, with his team staying competitive for most of that game.

Martin did return to action against the Beavers but made only 3 of his 13 shots. Martin missed all eight of his shots from 3-point land, and he is 8 of 37 from behind the arc this season. This team is considered Hurley’s most talented in his sixth year with the program. Martin and Alonzo Verge bypassed the NBA to return to the team, and Hurley added a five-star potential one-and-done recruit in Josh Christopher.

COVID complications and playing shorthanded explains much of the reasons why the Sun Devils are 4-6 at this point of the season. Yet the play on the court has been a disappointment. Arizona State is making only 28.3% of their shots from 3-point land in conference play, which is problematic in Hurley’s run-and-gun system that prioritizes 3-point shooting. The Sun Devils take 39.6% of their shots from behind the arc, 125th most in the nation, yet only 29.7% of their points come from these shots, which ranks 203rd.

Hurley is still without two rotation players, with Jalen Graham out because of mononucleosis and Taeshon Curry in the COVID contact tracing protocol.

BetAnySports lists Arizona as a 2.5-point road favorite with the total set at 154.

All photographic images used for editorial content have been licensed from the Associated Press.

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