Count perimeter play as the X-factor between the No. 5 Arizona Wildcats and Arizona State Sun Devils when they converge Saturday in Tempe with a combined 23-3 record.
Because what each of the rivals has excelled at early on this season happens in the paint.
Arizona State has one of the best interior defenses in the country, with 7-foot center Warren Washington Jr. directing the backend and wings like the Cambridge brothers, plus Alonzo Gaffney and Jamiya Neal, causing problems with their length and activity.
The Wildcats, though, have the top-ranked offense in the country by KenPom’s standards and No. 2-rated attack by offensive rating.
They are propelled by center Oumar Ballo’s emergence. He’s averaging 17.8 points per game as the country’s second-best shooter by percentage (74.2%), while power forward Azuolas Tubelis’ efficiency and transition aggression is netting him a team-leading 20.1 points per game on 61.4% shooting.
“They’re a very good basketball team,” ASU head coach Bobby Hurley told Arizona Sports’ Bickley & Marotta on Tuesday. “Ballo has really tightened his game up for them. You talk about Tubelis being one of the best transition running bigs in college basketball.
“So I think there’s a lot of things we need to address defensively, making sure that we take care of the interior. We’ve had one of the top interior field goal percentage defenses in the country and we’re going to need every bit of that on Saturday.”
Hurley is not making that up.
According to HaslaMetrics.com, Arizona State leads the country in a stat called near-proximity field goal percentage allowed versus the opponent average (NP%). It accounts for layups, dunks and tip-ins.
On the other side of things, Arizona ranks No. 2 in NP% for its offense, with Ballo and Tubelis doing so much of their damage at the rim.
ASU had also ranked in the top-three of defenses in the mid-range two weeks ago before slippage in a win against San Diego and a 97-60 blowout loss against San Francisco leading into the Christmas break.
“It was the perfect storm really,” Hurley said of the dud in the Bay Area. “We didn’t shoot well early in the game, they made every shot. I hinted after our San Diego game I wasn’t happy with our defense and we were going down a bad path … Hopefully it’s a lesson learned.
“We got to be ready to play, we have to guard better. That’s been our calling card. We haven’t done it the last two games. Got to get it fixed. We have some days to practice here and prepare for Saturday.”
ASU didn’t have Desmond Cambridge for the shocker against the Dons, but the key piece for college basketball’s best starting lineup, per some metrics, is back after getting past a stomach virus.
Hurley said his team has responded to the loss well. And he added that perspective is important as the Sun Devils aim to get their confidence back.
“I’ve just had multiple guys reach out independently just letting me know that’s unacceptable, the way we lost and how we performed. I think they took it very personal,” Hurley said.
“To be sitting 11-2 and 2-0 in the Pac-12, I think it’s been a great start. I don’t want to put more than is necessary into one loss but we got to get our confidence right and we have to get our habits going in the right direction again this week heading into a big game Saturday.”