It’s March, so let the Madness begin! Or if you are the Arizona State Sun Devils and Arizona Wildcats, the madness just continues in what has been a rollercoaster year for both programs. The two teams survived the season, and are ready to roll in the NCAA Tournament.
ASU (20-11) will play the Syracuse Orange (20-13) in a First Four match-up in Dayton on Wednesday at 6:10 pm (Arizona time). Both teams are seeded 11th in the Midwest Region. The winner will meet up with #6 TCU in Detroit on Friday. Tip-off for that game is set for 6:40 pm (Arizona time).
The Sun Devils started the season 12-0, including wins over Xavier and at Kansas, two teams who are number 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. ASU’s early season success led to a #3 national ranking in December. In Pac 12 play though, the Sun Devils stumbled, finishing in 9th place with a record of 8-10, including a first round exit in the conference tournament.
LET’S GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! pic.twitter.com/QWTFfz35wi
— Sun Devil MBB (@SunDevilHoops) March 11, 2018
ASU is making its first appearance in the Big Dance since 2014 and are led by their trio of senior guards Tra Holder, Kodi Justice, and Shannon Evans. Holder, a 1st team All-Pac 12 selection, leads the team averaging 18.4 points per game. He scored a season high 40 points vs. Xavier, and ranks 5th on ASU’s all-time scoring list with 1,786 points.
Justice, who played at Mesa Dobson High School, averages 12.6 points. “It means the world to me. This is a dream for me to be able to be a local kid from Arizona, to be able to take this team to the tournament. It’s great to share with these guys.” Justice said.
Evans, who is scoring 16.6 points per contest, played on Buffalo’s 2015 NCAA Tournament team under head coach Bobby Hurley. Hurley came to Tempe after that season to take over at ASU. The Sun Devils head coach won 2 NCAA Championships as a player at Duke (1991, 1992) and was named the ’92 Most Outstanding Player at the Final Four.
The Sun Devils average 83.5 points per game, which ranks 1st in the Pac 12. ASU’s penetration and perimeter shooting will be key in breaking down Syracuse’s zone defense. “As we got to league play, teams saw they can’t let our guards get in the paint. So a lot of teams zoned us, especially Washington (coached by former Jim Boeheim assistant Mike Hopkins). I guess it would be a mirror image of how Syracuse plays their zone. But no one does it as well as they do. So we got a big challenge in terms of attacking it and proving that we’re capable of executing and playing great offense against a team that plays the zone, because we didn’t always handle it great in conference play.” Hurley said.
The Orange are led by legendary Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim, who has led his alma mater since 1976. Boeheim won an NCAA Championship in 2003. “They (ASU) shoot the ball extremely well. They push the ball up the court as well as any team in the country. They’re as good an offensive team as anybody in the country. Any team that has multiple scorers is always a difficult team to play defensively against. And they have multiple guys that can shoot it and get to the basket.” Boeheim said.
#4 seeded Arizona (27-7) will play the #13 seed Buffalo Bulls (26-8) in a South Region first round match-up in Boise on Thursday at 6:40 pm (Arizona time). The Wildcats have won 8 of their last 9 games, and won the Pac 12 regular season and tournament titles. The Bulls, winners of 6 straight, claimed the Mid-American Conference regular season and tournament championships. Buffalo’s 26 wins set a school single season record. “They’re incredibly talented, well coached, and they play a style that’s difficult to defend. They have outstanding guards, a lot like the teams in our conference. They strike in transition and they know how to win. They have been in the NCAA Tournament 3 of the last 4 years. We’re dealing with a confident team.” Arizona head coach Sean Miller said.
U of A has proved resilient this season as an ongoing federal investigation has swirled around the program regarding potential recruiting improprieties. Arizona has a talented team that is poised to make a deep run in the tournament. “If you start to think about that, you’re not going to get there. It’s about having a great process, and make sure we are healthy, and ready, and have a lot of energy focused on the task at hand, and then move from there.” Miller said.
The Wildcats are led by freshman sensation Deandre Ayton. The 7’1″ 260 pound center, who played at Hillcrest Prep Academy in Phoenix last year, is hailed by many as the nation’s top player. Ayton averages 20.3 points and 11.5 rebounds per game, which ranks second and first respectively in the Pac 12. The big man was named the Pac 12 Conference Player of the Year, Freshman of the Year, and Tournament MVP.
U of A junior guard Allonzo Trier, who was named All Pac 12 first team, averages 18.4 points per contest. 7’0″ 245 pound senior center Dusan Ristic, a second team All Pac 12 selection, is averaging 12.1 points and 7.0 rebounds per game. The two remaining starters senior point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright (7.9 points, 4.6 assists) and sophomore swing man Rawle Alkins (13.4 points, 4.8 rebounds) will be key components for the Wildcats as well.
Buffalo Head Coach Nate Oats was recently named the Mid-American Conference coach of the year, and was previously a Bulls assistant coach under Bobby Hurley.
The winner of the Arizona / Buffalo match-up will play the winner of the #5 Kentucky / #12 Davidson game on Saturday in Boise.
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