During the final, tumultuous days of the Lute Olson era in Tucson, the Arizona basketball dynasty appeared to be in decline. Players decommitted from playing for the Wildcats, an interim coach was brought in, and, just as significantly, ASU began to climb the basketball ladder.
After luring now-Oklahoma City Thunder star James Harden to play with Jeff Pendergraph, Herb Sendek and the Sun Devils were finally built to contend for the title of "best basketball team in the Grand Canyon State." Over the past three seasons, ASU has won six of their seven meetings with UA, a streak that resonates loudly with the Tempe fanbase.
When you look at the story in 2011, the picture is reverting to its original format. Do not adjust your screen. Arizona hired Sean Miller away from Xavier a few years back, and the new coach began rebuilding the program by hitting the recruiting trail with ferocity.
Miller was able to bring in an excellent class of basketball players following the 2008-2009 season, headlined by Derrick Williams and Solomon Hill. Williams is averaging 19.1 points per game this season, shooting a ridiculous 70% from beyond the arc. This coming from a strong power forward who also grabs seven rebounds a game.
Led by Williams and Hill, the Wildcats are 14-3 and are beginning to regain their top tier form. Two of their three losses were to Kansas and BYU, teams that have combined for 33 wins and one loss during this entire season. Long story short, they are getting close.
Arizona State, on the other hand, has taken a gigantic step backwards from 2009-2010, where they won 22 games and finished second in the Pac-10 with an experienced, if unspectacular team. Replacing Derek Glasser, Eric Boateng and Jerren Shipp are a cast of newcomers that have yet to gel together and play winning basketball. Recruits Carrick Felix, Kyle Cain, and Brandon Dunson have all seen a lot of court time, but have only shown brief flashes.
Consistency and style of play are two important benchmarks to take into consideration when judging a teams successes and failures -- when it comes to ASU, their lack of offense and boring style have turned off fans and have made it difficult for the Sun Devils to score points. Arizona, on the other hand, is averaging 77.5 points a game and have no trouble scoring in bunches.
Arizona State needs to work on both its defense and its offense if it wishes to even pretend to contend in the Pac-10 anytime soon. UA is already in the upper echelon and will be for a long time. Unless, of course, the Sun Devils can win in Tucson again on Saturday night.