Given the personnel losses that occurred at the end of the 2013-14 season, Arizona State was expected to have some issues this season. And that was the case ahead of Saturday’s game against in-state rival No. 6 Arizona, as Herb Sendek’s Sun Devils had a record of 11-11 overall and 3-6 in Pac-12 play. However Arizona State played arguably its best game of the season against the Wildcats, using a balanced offensive effort to pull off the 81-78 upset win.
This is the second straight year in which Arizona State has beaten Arizona in Tempe, with a Jahii Carson dunk capping a wild (and controversial) win last season.
The issue for Arizona on Saturday was their defense, as Arizona State managed to shoot 50 percent from the field and 7-for-15 from beyond the arc. The Sun Devils were balanced offensively, with four players scoring between 14 and 18 points, but it was senior Bo Barnes who made the difference in the second half. Of his career-high 18 points Barnes scored 13 in the second half, and he also made all eight of his free throw attempts.
Add in freshman point guard Tra Holder, who scored ten of his 15 points in the first half and continued his recent run of solid play, and Arizona State more than held its own on the perimeter. The Sun Devils entered the game ranked ninth in the Pac-12 in points per possession (0.98; conference games only). They averaged 1.125 points per possession against the Wildcats who, while there aren’t as good defensively as they were a season ago, are still formidable on that end of the floor.
T.J. McConnell scored 25 points and dished out four assists for Arizona, shooting 11-for-19 from the field, but that number of shot attempts is too high for him. Arizona also managed to convert 18 offensive rebounds into 13 points, but that wasn’t enough to cover up for either their defense or the fact that starting center Kaleb Tarczewski scored just two points on 1-for-6 shooting.
Last year’s team, which featured current pros Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon, was able to buckle down defensively and thus cover up for their offensive deficiencies. This team doesn’t consistently defend at that level, and it can get them in trouble when faced with a team that can find and make decent looks. Whether it was Holder in the first half, Savon Goodman early in the second or Barnes down the stretch, Arizona State was able to win some individual battles offensively. That allowed them to establish the working margin needed to pull off the upset.
In that regard this loss looked similar to Arizona’s first loss of the season at UNLV, as they were unable to match up with either Rashad Vaughn or Christian Wood.
If Arizona is to get Sean Miller to his first Final Four, that has to change between now and mid-March. Arizona State’s ceiling obviously isn’t that high, but on Saturday they were the team that executed better. With that being the case, Sendek’s Sun Devils were rewarded with their biggest win of the season to date.