The Arizona State Sun Devils men's basketball team is on the verge of advancing to the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1980-81.
Standing in their way is their archrivals -- not to mention 15,000 fans preparing to give them an earful for two-plus hours.
On Saturday, ASU (20-9, 11-6 Pac-12) will make the trip 110 miles south to take on the Arizona Wildcats in the final regular-season game for both teams. The typically powerful Wildcats (17-13, 8-9) are limping, literally and otherwise, through a mediocre season, and the Sun Devils defeated Arizona in Tempe in late January. But the Wildcats are surely salivating at the chance to cripple the Devils' Tournament chances on what will be UA's Senior Day.
How big is Saturday's showdown for the Sun Devils? Here are three key storylines.
1. ASU might need to win at least one more game to get into the NCAA Tournament
For the second straight season, the Sun Devils are squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble. As of Wednesday, 97 of 127 Tournament projections have ASU in the field of 68, but most of those projections have ASU in just barely. A loss to a mediocre Arizona team would put the Devils in a position where they might have to win at least one game in next week's Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas in order to feel comfortable about their NCAA chances.
"I told the guys: There’s no more time to lose and learn from it. We’ve got to get past that," Hurley said. "It's single-elimination time, and we’ve got to string together multiple wins."
The Sun Devils have truly been a Jekyll-and-Hyde team throughout the season, with wins over then-No. 1 Kansas and Pac-12-leading Washington, but several losses to sub-par teams, including Princeton, Vanderbilt and Washington State.
That's why ASU senior forward Zylan Cheatham said the Devils are looking at every game from here on out as a must-win.
"We dropped games that we feel like we shouldn’t have dropped. We’ve put ourselves in this position at this time," he said. "There’s no more time for relaxation. We’ll relax after the season when it’s all said and done. There’s no more margin for error. There’s no more room for any type of that stuff, and that’s how we’re approaching every day."
2. The Devils haven't beaten Arizona in Tucson in nine years
The Sun Devils beat Arizona 95-88 in overtime in Tempe five weeks ago for Hurley's first-ever win over the Wildcats. But the last time ASU won at McKale Center came years before Hurley arrived in the desert.
ASU defeated UA 73-69 at McKale Center on Feb. 21, 2010, in what was Sean Miller's first season as Wildcat head coach. Since then, Arizona has beaten the Sun Devils eight straight times in Tucson, including an 84-78 thriller last season when the Sun Devils were the No. 3 ranked team in the nation, and likely would have moved to No. 1 with a win over UA.
Cheatham, who transferred to ASU last season, was in the stands for that game, and he knows what to expect from the always-noisy McKale Center crowd.
"I like to say you’ve got to be at least 10 points better than the (other) team going into their home court, because you’ve got to consider some of the calls they’re going to get, that extra energy, and if I’m not mistaken, it’s their Senior Night… so you know how that goes. Their older guys want to go out with a bang. They don’t want us to ruin what they’ve had going for X amount of years beating us at their place," he said. "I kind of know what to expect, crowd-wise and just environment-wise, and I’ve been trying to preach that to my young guys."
Hurley said communication is especially important when playing in hostile environments.
"When you’re on the road and you know the crowd is going to be live, you better be communicating and you better have great huddles and echoing commands, and doing the things that are necessary, especially on the offensive end," he said.
Also of note: ASU hasn't swept UA in a season series since 2008-09, when the Devils beat the Wildcats three times, including in the Pac-10 Tournament.
3. Hurley has never won at McKale Center
Hurley is 0-3 in Tucson as ASU head coach, but he's 0-4 all-time when you include his loss as a player. While he was a star point guard for Duke, Hurley's Blue Devils fell to the Wildcats 103-96 on Feb. 24, 1991.
Wildcat fans have grown especially fond of giving the emotional Hurley an earful throughout each game he's coached at McKale Center, and he's expecting the same treatment Saturday.
"I’ll hear things, but I can’t remember a specific example. But there’s some venom there, for sure," Hurley said about Wildcat fans in Tucson.
So, a win at McKale wouldn't just better position the Sun Devils for a second straight NCAA Tournament appearance; it would also get a 28-year-old monkey off their coach's back.
"He takes every game serious, but with all that’s been said, just considering it’s a rivalry, just considering the history of UA and Arizona State, it’s going to be a really high-level game regardless of what else extra is added into it," Cheatham said.
"It’s not a secret. We know we haven’t won up there, so that’s something we want to do and add (as) a milestone in our career."