Analysis and prediction: Who will win Friday's UA-ASU showdown?

In perhaps the most meaningful men’s basketball game between the two schools in years, the No. 2 Arizona Wildcats (23-1, 10-1 Pac-12) head to Tempe’s Wells Fargo Arena on Friday to take on one of the Pac-12’s hottest teams, Arizona State (18-6, 7-4).

ASU is 13-1 at home this season and has won five of its last six games. But UA has won its last three meetings against the Sun Devils, and Wildcat head coach Sean Miller is 7-2 against ASU – including 3-1 at Wells Fargo Arena – since he arrived in Tucson.

The Wildcats defeated the Devils 91-68 in Tucson on Jan. 16. What will ASU need to do in order to even the season series? Here are three questions and a prediction for Friday night’s sold-out showdown:

1. Will Marshall’s return make the difference? The Sun Devils were not at full strength in their blowout loss in Tucson four weeks ago, as senior guard and second-leading scorer Jermaine Marshall sat out the game with a groin injury. In his first and only season in Tempe, the Penn State transfer has averaged 15.6 points a game, and his 43.8% 3-point percentage is the fifth-best in the Pac-12.

UA junior guard and leading scorer Nick Johnson noted earlier this week that Marshall’s outside shooting capability gives ASU a dangerous change of pace in the backcourt alongside star sophomore guard Jahii Carson, who likes to drive to the basket. Marshall’s presence should make Friday’s game more competitive, but will it be enough?

2. Can ASU limit UA on the offensive glass? The big story on the UA side is the season-ending foot injury suffered by starting sophomore forward Brandon Ashley two weeks ago. But while Ashley was UA’s second-leading scorer and rebounder before his injury, the Wildcats are still one of the nation’s best rebounding teams, especially on the offensive end, as evidenced by their 15 offensive rebounds to Oregon State’s four en route to a 76-54 home win over the Beavers on Sunday.              

While ASU senior center and reigning Pac-12 Player of the Week Jordan Bachynski is one of the conference’s best big men, there’s a significant lack of depth in ASU’s frontcourt – and it was noticeable when Oregon enjoyed a 14-7 offensive rebounding advantage over the Devils in Saturday’s 74-72 ASU win over the Ducks.

If ASU has difficulty boxing out the Cats’ fantastic frontcourt trio of sophomore center Kaleb Tarzcewski and freshman forwards Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, it could be a long night for the Devils.

3. Can the Devils connect from 3-point range?  Shooting 39.4% for the season, Arizona State is the Pac-12’s third-most accurate team from behind the arc. But led by the defensive efforts of starting junior guards Nick Johnson and T.J. McConnell, Arizona is the conference’s second-best team in 3-point defense (30.2%). ASU did connect on 7 of 14 shots from distance in its first meeting with UA, but most of those baskets came late in the game with the outcome already determined.  

Marshall’s return for the rematch should provide a boost to the Devils’ outside shooting – but ASU will likely need him, along with at least two other players, to shoot well from 3-point range early and often in order to have a shot at upsetting the nation’s No. 2 team.

Prediction: A healthy Marshall and an injured Ashley – not to mention the venue changing from Tucson to Tempe – seem to suggest that ASU will be much more competitive in Friday’s rematch.

But the key number for this game is 70. One of the nation’s best overall defensive teams, UA has allowed more than 70 points in just one of its 24 games this season (in a 79-75 win at UCLA). ASU is 16-1 when scoring more than 70 points this season, but just 2-5 when scoring 70 or fewer.

Even without Ashley, the Wildcats didn’t miss a beat defensively in last week’s home wins over Oregon and Oregon State, and they look poised to make the Sun Devils’ path to 70-plus points on Friday night a challenging one. It’s perhaps the main reason the Cats are likely to pull the season sweep against their in-state rivals for the second straight season. UA 68, ASU 60.

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