Arizona-Arizona State: Hoop rivals growing apart

Arizona-Arizona State: Hoop rivals growing apart

By Anthony Gimino - Special for Tucson News Now

With Arizona up by more than 20 points, late in a game at Arizona State in 2004, the student section hurling verbal bombs toward the UA bench, Lute Olson didn't need to open his mouth to respond.

He simply pointed to the scoreboard.

"I was like, 'You know, I have learned every new word from them you can learn,'" Olson said in an interview this spring, "and I finally just had enough."

Mostly, it's Arizona State that has had enough.

When it comes to Arizona basketball rivalries within the conference, the Sun Devils have had to get in line behind UCLA, Stanford, Washington ... maybe even Colorado in recent years. The familiar, hopeful refrain from the Valley is that the gap is closing -- and Herb Sendek's record against the Wildcats is admirable -- but, really, we're talking now about 30-plus years of Arizona basketball domination.

In that time, ASU has had two small windows of opportunity. Once in the mid-1990s when coach Bill Frieder had Mario Bennett, and then several years ago when James Harden was filling the rim for ASU while the Wildcats were transitioning with interim head coaches. It usually takes a few-and-far-between ASU superstar to beat Arizona.

Other than that, all the Cats have had to do is point at the scoreboard.

It could happen again when Arizona plays at Wells Fargo Arena on Saturday afternoon in ASU's lone annual home sellout. It's actually been a fun game in recent years. But when asked this week if the game in Tempe provided one of the more raucous atmospheres of the season for the Wildcats, coach Sean Miller, in a brilliantly succinct answer, responded, "No."

Next question, please.

Junior guard Gabe York was more revealing.

"Coach Miller is always passionate about playing Arizona State," York said, "and these two games are the ones he wants to win more than any of them."

Since winning five in a row in the series (that seems almost unthinkable, doesn't it?) immediately before Miller arrived in Tucson, ASU has gone 3-8 against the Cats. That's not horrible. ASU is 2-3 vs. Miller in Tempe, including a 69-66 double overtime victory over second-ranked Arizona last season, the best home win in ASU history in terms of the opponent's ranking.

So, stuff actually does happen in this one-sided rivalry.

The game in Tempe five years ago, when Miller first took on Sendek, his former boss at North Carolina State, provided one of the subtitles to this era of Arizona basketball. During the game, hard-nosed freshman Kevin Parrom absolutely was not going to give up a fast-break layup to Ty Abbott, fouling him -- hard -- from behind and then punctuating that by getting right in Abbott's face.

After the 77-58 Arizona victory, Parrom fully articulated his message via Twitter: "No Easy Buckets."

Three years ago, Arizona played its regular-season finale in Tempe while on the NCAA Tournament bubble. The Devils, who were 9-20 and No. 250 nationally in the RPI, went totally crazy, scoring 49 points in the second half en route to an 87-80 win that popped the Cats' bubble. Arizona ended up losing at home to Bucknell in the first round of the NIT.

Was that only three years ago?

As it stands now, Arizona is a fixture in the national top 10 and in annual contention for top NCAA Tournament seeds for as nearly as far as the eye can see. ASU, meanwhile, is trying to muddle to the middle of the Pac-12, with Sendek plastering roster holes with transfers. The Devils enter the weekend 10th in the league with a 3-6 record.

It's funny. While the Arizona and Arizona State football programs have risen in lockstep in the past few years, each winning a Pac-12 South title, the basketball programs are growing further apart again, occupying different worlds.

Still, given the sorry state of the Pac-12 behind Arizona and Utah, this could be one of the toughest regular-season games remaining for the Wildcats. There's the game vs. the Utes in Salt Lake City on Feb. 28 ... and then what? UCLA at home? At Colorado?

As if it needed a reminder, Arizona will be on its guard in Tempe because of last season's game.

"We know how great a rivalry this is, especially when we play up there," said York, who went 0-for-6 from the field in Tempe last season. "That was a hard game for us, for the whole team. I think we're all hyped up, ready to go."

Anthony Gimino has covered University of Arizona athletics for more than two decades, including as the football beat writer for the Arizona Daily Star and the columnist for the Tucson Citizen.