A Players' Program: Arizona State preview, Round 2 - Tucson News Now

A Players' Program: Arizona State preview, Round 2

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TEMPE, AZ (AP) -

Arizona and Arizona State opened Pac-12 play just over a month ago with the Wildcats thumping their rival and foreshadowing the potential disparity between themselves and the rest of the league.

There's been little variance to that revelation thus far, and No. 6 Arizona is well-rested heading to Tempe on Saturday hoping to show little will change as the teams begin the second half of the conference slate.

That first meeting ended in a 73-49 Arizona home win Jan. 4 with the Wildcats (20-2, 8-1) limiting the Sun Devils (11-11, 3-6) to a season-worst 32.6 percent from the field. Arizona State's 22 turnovers were a season high.

Much of the same has followed with Pac-12 opponents averaging a league-low 55.1 points and a league-high 14.9 turnovers as Arizona has won by an average of 17.7 points.

After last Friday's 57-34 home win over Oregon State - the one league team to beat the Wildcats - it seems the gap is only growing. Their last three games have produced a 73.3-46.7 winning margin with opponents shooting 37.6 percent, including 25.6 from beyond the arc, and averaging 17.3 turnovers.

T.J. McConnell was at the center of that disruption against the Beavers with a career-high eight steals. Plus, the senior has 11 assists against one turnover in the last two games and a 3.58 ratio in the past eight games without going over two turnovers.

The team is averaging 7.5 steals per game, on pace for the highest mark since coach Sean Miller took over prior to 2009-10. McConnell accounts for 2.2 per game, and the contributions don't go unnoticed.

"You can make the argument that no player we've recruited in our seven or eight recruiting classes has had more of an impact on winning games than T.J.," Miller said. "And he does it in all facets."

McConnell helped force Sun Devils guard Gerry Blakes into eight turnovers last month while Arizona was led offensively by Brandon Ashley, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Jonson scoring 13 points apiece. Blakes led Arizona State with nine.

Like the Wildcats, the Sun Devils got seven days off before this game. They're coming off last Friday's 68-67 overtime loss to Oregon, dropping to 2-2 at home in the league despite a career-high 24 points from Shaquielle McKissic. The forward leads the Sun Devils with 11.3 points per game but was held to eight at Arizona on 2-of-7 shooting. He's averaging 7.7 points on 31.8 percent shooting in three games in the series.

According to coach Herb Sendek, the latest defeat fell squarely on a 7-of-15 mark from the free-throw line. Since going 16 of 19 against the Wildcats, the Sun Devils have shot 62.3 percent from the line.

"It's really simple," Sendek said. "You have got to make free throws in a close game to win."

Despite the Wildcats' league dominance, there are indications that the close-game scenario Sendek mentions could arise. He's 8-10 against Arizona in nine seasons at Arizona State after the team's 1-22 stretch in the series. The Sun Devils have won four of the last seven meetings in Tempe, including a 69-66 double-overtime victory Feb. 14.

The problem is 59 of Arizona State's points in that game came from players who completed their time at the school last season. Arizona, conversely, got 17 points from McConnell and 13 points and 13 rebounds from current center Kaleb Tarczewski.

That was Arizona State's most recent win against a ranked team, and its two games against the Top 25 this season have resulted in losses by an average of 20.5 points.

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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