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January 16, 2014

Pick-your-poison Arizona looks to remain unbeaten



The longer top-ranked Arizona remains undefeated, the bigger its target grows. The motivation for the opposition, seeking to knock the Wildcats off the mountain and become that team, is sky high.

But the energy in the building Thursday night, against the rival in-state school, should tap into a source of pride - regardless of record - and match any extra motivation.

Arizona (17-0 4-0 Pac-12 Conference) will host Arizona State (13-4, 2-2 Pac-12) in a 7 p.m. tipoff at McKale Center. The 225th installment of the clash on the hardwood will also be a "red out" promotion.

"Most of our fans wear red so if you're already wearing red, wear more red," UA head coach Sean Miller said.

But the Wildcats, in Miller's words, do not want to treat the contest like the Super Bowl. While the team understands the importance of the rivalry, there also remains a balance in its approach.

Freshman forward Aaron Gordon, who was named USA Basketball's top male athlete of 2013 this week, echoed that sentiment.

"If you take one off, you might slip up and take a loss," Gordon said. "So each game is just a big as the next and if you look at it that way, then I don't really buy into rivalries as much."

Statements like that perhaps show why Arizona is one of three unbeaten teams remaining in college basketball. That talent on the roster doesn't hurt, either.

Sure, the team can point to the nation's fourth-best scoring defense and top-10 rebounding numbers and field goal percentage defense. But on any given night, someone else can be the hero.

In Sunday's program-record-setting win at USC, T.J. McConnell and Brandon Ashley poured in a season-high 19 points apiece. This season, six different Wildcats have led the team in scoring.

"It just shows that it can be anyone's night at any point," McConnell said after tying a career high with five-3-pointers in the 73-53 win over the Trojans. "Anyone can score on our team and we've got people coming off the bench that can score, as well. That's what makes us so lethal."

The upset-minded Sun Devils are led by Jahii Carson, last season's co-freshman of the year in the Pac-12 who made a surprise return for his sophomore season. The dynamic point guard has been just as good this season, averaging 18.1 points to rank sixth in the league in scoring.

But a team looking to qualify for the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009, ASU added some help in the offseason.

Jermaine Marshall joined the Sun Devils in August as a graduate transfer from Penn State. Entering the season, he and Carson were the highest scoring duo of any program in the Pac-12 and they check in at No. 2 currently behind only Roberto Nelson and Devon Collier.

Marshall, who is averaging 15.6 points, has provided a lift and experience that Miller likened to Mark Lyons' impact at Arizona last season.

"To me, he's one of our conference's best guards," Miller said. "Statistically speaking, when Arizona State's at their best he seems to have a big night."

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Tracy McDannaldTracy McDannald
GOAZCATS.com Senior Editor

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