What to watch for when Arizona travels to Tempe to face ASU on Thursday

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Amy Bailey | The Daily Wildcat Ira Lee (11) goes up for a dunk against the Sun Devils.

Arizona head coach Sean Miller had his weekly press conference on Wednesday, Jan. 20, previewing tonight’s rivalry matchup against Arizona State at 7 p.m. MST. 

Everything went by the book except when Miller dropped an injury update about freshman guard Kerr Kriisa. Miller said Kriisa also suffered a concussion while breaking his nose in practice last week, and his original scheduled return for Feb. 6 is in question now, and there is no timetable for his Arizona debut. 

Kriisa was a highly ranked four-star prospect in this year's recruiting class and is supposed to add plenty more shooting and playmaking. 

“I wish we were a better defensive team,” Miller said. “Our defense is not where we want it to be.” 

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That was Miller’s response when asked about his team's defense and the little improvement they’ve shown on that end. He is very clearly not happy with the defensive efficiency his team has shown this year, as Miller has always had pretty gritty teams. This is new for him, and it seems to be eating him alive. 

Miller certainly has good reason to be upset as the Wildcats couldn’t stop a plastic bag in a breeze in its losses to UCLA and USC earlier in the year. Arizona can’t participate in the postseason this year, but when they return much of this squad next year, they are going to be expected to be much-improved and make a deep postseason run. In March, you can’t make a deep run without being able to rely on and trust your defense to get stops down the stretch or to spark up a run. 

Miller was also asked about the point guard matchup between Remy Martin and James Akinjo. After going on a few minutes rave of Remy Martin, he finally got back to the original question of the matchup.

“It’s not James vs. him,” Miller said. 

Miller does not want this to become a game of one-on-one with the other eight guys playing cheerleader. This Arizona team moves the ball a lot better than past squads, and they are so well rounded and deep. It would be smart to get everyone involved by keeping that ball pinging. 

RELATED: Hoops: the Daily Wildcat basketball podcast [S1 Ep3] The Bennedict Mathurin game, Kerr Kriisa's potential impact and previewing the ASU games

Akinjo can get a little dribble happy and use up the shot clock trying to find his own shot. That kills the offense and ruins the energy of the team while the other four guys stand and watch a guy dribble. Arizona is at their best when Akinjo is in attack/playmaker mode, and he needs to remember that in his first rivalry matchup. 

What to watch for tonight

Rivalry games are always different from regular season games, especially games on the road, fans or not. That being said, Arizona should not lose this game, and it shouldn’t be that close.

The Sun Devils are at an extremely disappointing 4-6 overall and 1-3 in the conference. They’ve had their fair share of postponed games like Arizona, but so has the whole country. Miller has been irritated with his team’s defense all season, but this should be the defensive “get right” game. 

As long as Arizona comes out wide awake and plays hard from start to finish, they should be able to stop ASU head coach Bobby Hurley’s simple “isolated, one-on-one and get out of the way offense” that just doesn’t fly in college unless you have Christian Laettner on your team. 

Freshmen wings Dalen Terry and Bennedict Mathurin will have their hands full with five-star freshman Josh Christopher. Christopher is averaging 16.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.5 assists on an efficient 46% from the field. Christopher has been praised for his iso shot-creating all season but his off-ball movement has been criticized. 

Mathurin and Terry are actually pretty good matchups for him as they are long, quick and athletic. As long as they stay in front of him and make life difficult, he will give up the ball and start to fade away from the game on both ends. 

The backcourt matchup, as Miller mentioned, won’t be easy trying to stop Martin and Marcus Bagley from getting buckets. Their best bet might be to run a pack line defense to contest all the slashes and drives to the rim. 

This could be a good game for Jordan Brown as long as he’s playing physical in the restricted area. The X-factor for the Wildcats will be the impressive freshman Azuolas Tubelis. Tubelis will be stretching the floor, creating driving lanes for Akinjo, Mathurin and Terrell Brown and will give Jordan Brown an open paint to operate one-on-one in the post. ASU does not have a good matchup for Tubelis, a big guy that can range out to cover or a wing to toast Tubelis on the perimeter with a small-ball lineup. 

This should be a Miller “muscle flex” game. Going into the season, Arizona State was ranked. Arizona was not. ASU was picked ahead of Arizona in the Pac-12 polls. Think Miller noticed that? You have to believe so, and Thursday night is a perfect time to prove that. 

Last year's meltdown against ASU had to have left a bad taste in Miller's mouth. Most of this roster did not participate in that game, and this team already has shown much more heart and resilience than last year.


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