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Analysis: Pac-12 regular season title now in reach, Mathurin's injury leaves Arizona vulnerable indefinitely

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Arizona guard Terrell Brown Jr. dribbles past ASU defender Holland Woods on Monday, Jan. 25, 2021 in McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz. The Wildcats went on to win 80-67. (Courtesy of Mike Christy/Arizona Athletics)

At the end of the first matchup between these two teams, it seemed that Arizona State’s morale was broken with the way Arizona danced off the court with the game-winner. Typically when a rematch between rivals is played, the losing team comes out firing in the second game, pissed off and ready to prove last time was just a fluke. ASU, however, did the complete opposite.

The Sun Devils came out asleep, slow and as if they were just warming up for a pickup game at the Student Recreation Center by shooting contested three after contested three. It seemed as if Arizona head coach Sean Miller and his squad were the ones pissed off and ready to prove that their win on Thursday night wasn’t because of the referee's blowing a late call, as ASU head coach Bobby Hurley couldn’t stop mentioning. 

Arizona State didn’t score its first points of the game until there was 13:17 left in the first half, and they were lucky the score was only 13-2. Arizona could have blown the doors off this game much earlier if they didn’t play sloppy and careless with the ball in both halves. 

The final scoreboard of this game shows this was a lot closer than it felt. Remy Martin and the Sun Devils got hot with about six minutes remaining, and Arizona had stopped playing its hardest. A final tally of 80-67 to complete the desert rivalry sweep for the season for Arizona and staking their flag again as the owner of the desert state itself is a big deal for the Wildcats to gain momentum and finish the season off.

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What does the sweep mean? 

Any college coach will tell you that the games they circle on their calendars out of the gate are the prime time out of conference matchups and whenever they face off against their rival. 

For every coach, there is even an incentive boost in their contracts to win these rivalry games — so their bank accounts surely appreciate it as well. With Miller beating Hurley these last two games, that improves his record against his screaming foe to 9-3. 

Two of those losses came when Arizona had their worst season in close to 15 years in 2018-19. What does this prove? Well, going into the year, Arizona State was projected to be a Pac-12 contender and Arizona was not. Arizona State has two top-40 recruits on their current roster in Marcus Bagley and Josh Christopher. 

Miller’s highest recruit this year was Dalen Terry who was ranked No. 51 nationally in the 2020 class, per 247Sports composite rankings. Terry, a Phoenix native, faced some criticism for choosing the wrong school, that ASU was the place to be and that the UA’s reign of dominance was coming to an end.

That thought shouldn’t cross anyone's minds for a while now as Hurley is entering hot-seat territory while the Wildcats are on a path to contending for the Pac-12 regular-season title. As I predicted earlier, Miller had his muscle-flex series during this two-game stretch. Arizona State’s only flexing response was Christopher’s dunk celebration in Monday’s game while losing by 19 points. 

RELATED: Arizona beats ASU again in rematch game, freshman star Bennedict Mathurin sprains ankle

The Bennedict Mathurin injury

A scary moment approached near the end of the first half when freshman standout Bennedict Mathurin hustled for a chase-down block on Martin and landed awkwardly on his foot. He was in obvious major pain, gripping his upper ankle and pulling his leg tightly to his chest. He needed help getting into the locker room and Arizona seemed a bit shaken up from this injury. 



Good news appeared when it looked like Mathurin tried to give it a go during warmups at halftime, but the team wouldn’t let him return as he still showed pain. 

ESPN’s Dave Pasch reported a high ankle sprain on the broadcast, which Miller later confirmed after the game. Miller said the X-rays were negative and they should expect to be without Mathurin for at least two weeks, a real killer to the rotation as Mathurin was beginning to solidify himself as a 30-minute per game wing with NBA potential.

A once deep Wildcat roster will have to salvage minutes now that the rotation is missing Mathurin and Jermal Baker Jr. and still awaiting Kerr Kriisa’s debut. Akinjo and Terrell Brown Jr. will have to be prepared to play close to 35 minutes every night until Kriisa’s debut on Feb. 6. 

Terry will need to continue his promising freshman season as a defensive spark plug and smart passer that can keep the offense moving. Three-star freshman Tibet Gorener looked like he will gain some minutes with Mathurin and Baker’s absence during this blowout, but he has a long way to go before his minutes become the “please don’t let the ship sink” minutes. 

Gorener looked a little lost at times on defense, only staying attached to his man and never being in the correct help position. His offensive rhythm looked similar, playing a game of hot potato every time he touched the ball. Who can blame him though? His first real appearance all season against the arch-rival in a game he never expected to participate in. 

Miller will either need to run a seven-man rotation or get Gorener prepared enough to give 10-15 steady minutes each night. This decision will be something to look out for until Mathurin and/or Kriisa’s return. 

Pac-12 Standings

Everyone knows Arizona’s season will end when the regular season ends. That spoiled ending is sad enough for this team, but they still have a pretty important feat to play for: the Pac-12 regular-season title.

Arizona (6-3) is currently third in the Pac-12, sitting behind USC (6-2) and UCLA (8-1), whom the Wildcats each lost to once already this year. Miller will get his chance at a rematch in February when the Los Angeles schools travel to Tucson this time. 

The rotation should be healthy by the time each of these games roll around. The Wildcats will certainly need it against USC star freshman Evan Mobley and the rest of the Trojans and then again against Mick Cronin’s “rock-fight” of a roster he has at UCLA. 

These two games early in the season are where Miller seemed extra frustrated with the defensive efforts. USC dominated the glass and got more than plenty of second-chance opportunities down the stretch. Christian Koloko, Azuolas Tubelis and Jordan Brown will need to be prepared to play big and physical against the Mobley brothers when this rematch comes about. Those two were the sparks for USC’s late run that pulled the game away. 


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Updated February 28, 2021