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February 14, 2014
Rivals Arizona, ASU set for Valentine's date
TEMPE, Ariz. -- There won't exactly be flowers and candy exchanged between the expected sellout crowd on Valentine's Day at Wells Fargo Arena. Don't expect Arizona State to get in-state rival Arizona a get well card, either.
The first time the programs met this season, the Sun Devils (18-6, 7-4 Pac-12 Conference) were down their second-leading scorer. Now, it is the second-ranked Wildcats (23-1, 10-1 Pac-12) who are not at full strength for Friday night's contest, but that has not quite slowed down the conference leaders.
Tip-off is scheduled for 7:05 p.m.
"We're not going to be able to replace Brandon (Ashley)," UA head coach Sean Miller said of the sophomore, who was the team's second-leading scorer before suffering a season-ending foot injury Feb. 1. "We're going to have to do it as a team and there are things that we have to try to emphasize more now that he's not a part of what we're doing and maybe emphasize some things less. We're working through that as a coaching staff and a team."
The Wildcats also got fellow first-year forward Aaron Gordon back on track. After making just 11 of 42 shots over the previous four games, Gordon scored a game-high 17 points against the Beavers.
"I'm just going to continue to shoot and have confidence in it," said Gordon, who was recently named to the Naismith Trophy midseason top-30 list.
Around the league, few teams are playing as well as ASU, which has won five of its last six games and owns a 13-1 home record. No player in the Pac-12 is playing better than senior Jordan Bachynski, either.
In two wins over the Oregon schools last week, the 7-2 center averaged 21.5 points, 12 rebounds and eight blocks while shooting 75 percent from the field. Bachynski, who finished a rebound and block shy of a triple-double last Saturday, made the game-saving clock in the closing seconds to hold off Oregon's late charge, 74-72.
"Bachynski seems to get better as his career unfolds," Miller said. "I don't know if he's ever been playing better. We really have our hands full."
Bachynski was named the conference's player of the week - a stark contrast to the player who missed all three of his shots in a 91-68 loss Jan. 16 in Tucson.
But Miller said the missing shooting touch of Jermaine Marshall may have had something to do with that.
The senior transfer from Penn State, who sat out the first meeting with a groin injury, is averaging 15.6 points. Marshall has connected on 43.8 percent of his 3-pointers to rank fourth in the Pac-12, and Miller said his presence helps give Bachynski room to operate while also alleviating some of the scoring load.
Star guard Jahii Carson also struggled against UA, missing 12 of 19 shots en route to a game-high 20 points. The sophomore is currently shooting just 25.9 percent over the last two games.
One player anxious to see Marshall is Nick Johnson, the leading scorer and top perimeter defender for Arizona.
"I was looking forward to guarding him," said Johnson, whose 17 points in the first meeting led a season-best seven double-figure scorers for the Wildcats.
On top of the always emotionally charged rivalry, the contest brings different meanings to both teams.
The Wildcats are looking to create more depth and add to Elliott Pitts' limited experience. After appearing in just seven of the team's first 21 games, without significant minutes, the freshman guard has checked into each of the last three - including 26 total minutes over the previous two.
The Sun Devils, meanwhile, have a chance to make a statement in their push for the program's first NCAA tournament bid in five seasons. UA owns the nation's second-best RPI, and ASU is 3-4 against the top 50.
"I think that all our guys understand that the game in Tucson, they beat us. They got us good, they whacked us," ASU head coach Herb Sendek said. "We have to try to come out and respond, and we understand what a great team Arizona is."