PHOENIX — The two biggest surprises in the Pac-12 heading into conference play come from the same state.
Arizona State was picked to finish sixth in the Pac-12 yet has been maybe the biggest surprise in all of college basketball, winning all 12 of its nonconference games while moving up to a program-high No. 3 in the AP Top 25.
Arizona was No. 2 in the poll early in the season and went the opposite direction, dropping out after an unexpected 0-for-3 trip to the Bahamas. The Wildcats (10-3) have rounded back into form recently, setting up one of the most anticipated games in their rivalry on Saturday at McKale Center.
No. 17 Arizona and Arizona State are meeting with both teams ranked for the first time since 1995.
“I hope every fan from Arizona and Arizona State is trying like heck to get in that building,” Sun Devils coach Bobby Hurley said. “It’s going to be a fun, competitive game to be a part of.”
The Sun Devils were expected to be better in Hurley’s third season in the desert with big men Romello White and De’Quon Lake giving their three senior guards help on the inside at both ends.
Arizona State’s rise was much more meteoric than expected.
White and Lake have freed up the trio of Tra Holder, Shannon Evans II and Kodi Justice, while Hurley has allowed his confident guards the freedom to do what they do best. Arizona State also has one of nation’s biggest game-changers off the bench in Remy Martin, a high-energy, hard-playing freshman guard.
Arizona State turned a few heads by knocking off No. 15 Xavier in late November and burst into the national consciousness by beating No. 2 Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse.
“I think they have a great team,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “They have those guards playing at a high level as far as I can see and they have experience.”
Arizona got off to a slow start in large part because of defensive breakdowns. The Wildcats have bounced back from that lost trip to the Bahamas with big improvements on the defensive end and one of the nation’s most difficult 1-2 punches in Allonzo Trier and Deandre Ayton.
The game on Saturday is the perfect way to kick off the Pac-12 season.
Here are a few more things to look for in the Pac-12 as the conference season begins:
INCONSISTENT USC: Southern California was ranked No. 2 in the preseason and was expected to be Arizona’s main challenger to win the Pac-12 title. The Trojans (9-4) have yet to live up to those lofty expectations, but, like Arizona, may have turned things around. USC had a three-game losing streak a month into the season and had a home loss to Princeton on Dec. 19. But the Trojans still have one of the conference’s most talented rosters, led by junior forward Bennie Boatwright, and won three games in Hawaii over the weekend to win the Diamond Head Classic.
UCLA’s STRANGE RIDE: UCLA lost Lonzo Ball, T.J. Leaf and Bryce Alford from last year’s team, but it was still ranked No. 21 in the preseason poll because of the talent left on the roster and the stellar recruiting class coach Steve Alford added. The season got off to a rocky start in China, where LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill were accused of shoplifting and suspended. Ball left the school to play professionally overseas, while Riley and Hill were recently suspended for the rest of the season. The Bruins shouldn’t be overlooked, though; they beat No. 7 Kentucky last Friday.
REBUILT DUCKS: Oregon had to replace four starters from its Final Four team but was still picked to finish fourth in the Pac-12. The Ducks (10-3) have been pretty close to those prognostications, beating the teams they were supposed to while losing to the four best teams on their schedule.
RIDING REID: Stanford (6-7) had an uneven run through a difficult nonconference schedule, but Reid Travis hasn’t. The junior forward leads the Pac-12 in scoring at 21.4 points per game despite opposing teams keying on him and is grabbing 7.1 rebounds per game.
WRIGHT IS RIGHT: Colorado’s McKinley Wright IV was not highly recruited out of his Minnesota high school, but he has been a perfect fit for the Buffaloes. The 6-foot point guard is the Pac-12’s second-leading freshman scorer (17 points per game) and has been a confident floor leader while playing relentlessly on defense.