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January 18, 2013
No advanced metric exists that can measure a rivalry. In an increasingly logic-based sports landscape, a rivalry is an island on which intangibility and mythos still thrive.
Arizona and Arizona State's annual Duel in the Desert dates back to the 19th century. The sheer longevity of the series is just one element that makes it a bona fide rivalry. Regional bragging rights are at stake, and competitive balance ensures neither side is on top too often - at least, that's the case on the football field.
ASU just hasn't measured up as a legitimate basketball rival to UA. At the very least, the hardwood Duel is historically one-sided. Otherwise, this pairing has long been as much a rivalry as the Harlem Globetrotters and Washington Generals, with UA amassing a 142-80 all-time advantage.
UA-UCLA from the late 1980s through the 1990s? Now that was a rivalry. It was first born in 1986 when Lute Olson won his first Pacific-10 Conference crown at UCLA's expense. The Wildcats were the upstart trying to muscle in on the Bruins' long-held territory. The series included such moments as UA sealing the 1988 Pac-10 title at Pauley Pavilion, and Don MacLean's Bruins snapping UA's 71-game McKale Center win streak in 1992.
By the turn of the millennium, UA was the standard bearer. In a role reversal, it became the old guard trying to hold off an upstart for conference supremacy with Washington's arrival in the 2000s. Contests between the 'Cats and Dawgs were competitive, chippy, entertaining and - most importantly - played for conference supremacy.
The basketball Duel isn't without history. Olson scored his first conference win as the Wildcats' head coach in 1984, for example.
The ever-present hostility between the two universities exists as more than a residual of the football rivalry. And sure, the series has featured some classic moments for both sides: Salim Stoudamire's pull-up buzzer-beater in 2005 and Mario Bennett leading a double-overtime win at McKale Center in 1995 come to mind.
Missing, though, were the high stakes those marquee match-ups with UCLA and UW offered.
Herb Sendek's arrival changed the dynamic. ASU went on a five-game win streak from 2008 through 2009, culminating in a three-game sweep through the '09 campaign.
Sean Miller's hire only strengthened the case. Miller's coaching roots stem from the Sendek tree. The basketball relationship mirrors football in that regard: ASU head coach Todd Graham was briefly an assistant under Rich Rodriguez.
Miller was an assistant to the current ASU head coach while at Miami (Ohio). The crowning achievement of Sendek's time in Oxford was coaching a No. 12 seed to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, beating a traditional powerhouse five-seed in the process. That opponent was, of course, UA.
The first encounter between mentor and apprentice on opposite sidelines featured a genuine rivalry moment. Kevin Parrom's hard foul on Sun Devil guard Ty Abbott came with a warning label: No easy buckets.
For a rebuilding UA, it was a declaration that the soft label applied to past teams would no longer fit the new-look Wildcats. It was a meaningful win, as it snapped ASU's win streak. Parrom will take the floor at Wells Fargo Arena for the last time, and surely, ASU fans remember his first visit.
Status quo returned in 2011, but last season's ASU win in Tempe stoked the fire anew.
That last meeting was something of a coming out party for center Jordan Bachynski. The Sun Devil big man went 5 of 7 from the floor for 11 points, but more importantly, blocked six shots. The momentum propelled both ASU and Bachynski into this season.
The Sun Devils are off to a surprising 14-3 start. Bachynski has been at the forefront, playing with a swagger that carried over in a postgame press conference following ASU's win over Colorado earlier this month. He told reporters, "It wasn't an overtime win, so it's a little better than our friends down south."
That confidence is spread around the Sun Devil roster, evident in Jahii Carson's Twitter declaration he doesn't "think there is a PG in the PAC better then (sic) me. Just me. I think I've played the best so far and it's my first year playin."
It's his first season playing Pac-12 basketball, thus his first facing Arizona. Likewise, UA point guard Mark Lyons is making his debut against the Sun Devils. Lyons might have an objection to Carson's evaluation.
Each side has something to prove at the other's expense. The underlining hostility is palpable. And key is that the winner has an inside track on the conference title race, as each sits at 3-1 in the Pac.