LAS VEGAS — The Pac-12 tournament game that determines Arizona’s next opponent has a dramatic feel unbecoming of a first round game of a four-day event at the T-Mobile Arena.
No. 9 seed ASU (20-10) faces No. 8 Colorado (16-14) on Wednesday at 1 p.m. (Tucson time) with each clinging to the hope a victory keeps their NCAA tournament hopes alive. The Buffaloes are in a win-or-go-home situation while the Sun Devils might already have enough on their resume (wins over Xavier, Kansas, UCLA and Utah) to get in no matter what but need at least one victory to feel more at ease.
Each team comes in limping, losing four of its last five games.
“Obviously, there’s going to be debate with teams in the committee room, but I feel very comfortable with what we’ve accomplished,” ASU coach Bobby Hurley said in a press conference this week. “Not only beating (Xavier and Kansas), but beating them on neutral sites (the game against Kansas was actually in Lawrence) and doing it decisively. …
“And almost in the case of Xavier, where you’re actually just not trying to embarrass them any further in the last two minutes of the game. When you have wins like that, people know you can beat the very best teams.”
ASU returns to the city that included one of its fondest memories of the season, capturing the Continental Tire Invitational title at The Orleans Casino in November (Arizona also won in Las Vegas, beating UNLV in early December).
The Sun Devils, who went 12-0 in the non-conference portion of the schedule, beat Kansas State and upset then-No. 15 Xavier when they played in Las Vegas almost four months ago.
“It basically all started in Vegas, so it’s kind of starting all over again,” senior guard Tra Holder told the Arizona Republic. “I like our odds there. In Vegas, we’re in familiar territory. Hopefully, we shoot the ball as well as we did when we were there.”
Hurley hopes his team encounters more luck than what his team experienced during the Pac-12 season.
“We’re probably one of the best nine seeds in the history of the Pac-12, to be honest,” Hurley said. “We didn’t run through the schedule the way we needed to. Our record should be better. We didn’t get the job done there – that’s on me. … But I think teams still will get ready for us because they respect what we’ve done.”
Colorado split its regular-season series with ASU and has also beaten Arizona, UCLA (twice), Stanford and Utah, but the Buffaloes have also lost to Washington State and were routed by 19 points by Oregon State. Colorado also beat last-place Cal by only four points at home.
They have history in the tournament on their side with a 6-0 record in first round games and the distinction of being the only team to win four games in four days to capture the conference tournament title in 2012, beating Arizona in the championship in Los Angeles.
“It’s a matter of going and executing and playing with great passion and great energy,” Colorado coach Tad Boyle is quoted as saying by The Daily Camera. “I’d like for this team to not be that first (to lose in the first round). This is a very formidable opponent. ASU is a good team. Obviously going into league play they were the darlings of college basketball and they’re still very explosive.”
Colorado’s defense (first in the Pac-12 in defensive field goal percentage at .422) and rebounding (third at plus-2.3 a game) provide the Buffaloes the opportunity to upset anybody. Ask Arizona.
ASU must win to bolster its NCAA tournament outlook. Colorado needs a victory to keep at least its NIT hopes alive.
“It’s going to come down to just executing and playing the hardest and just getting 50-50 balls,” Colorado senior George King told The Daily Camera. “One thing I always say is loose balls, 50-50 balls, are for competitors only. It’s going to come down to things like that.
“We’re the underdog. I wouldn’t want it any other way. We know what we’re capable of. We beat this team before and we put up a little bit of a fight when we were in Arizona State (outscored by 17 points in the last 11 minutes to lose 80-66).”
If the Sun Devils beat Colorado, they will play rival Arizona for the third time this season. Arizona beat ASU twice, winning by six in Tucson and seven in Tempe.
The Buffaloes beat Arizona 80-77 at home before losing 80-71 at McKale Center. Colorado shot 55.8 percent from the field in the rematch but was outscored 22-5 at the free throw line. Arizona made 22 of 23 shots from the line while Colorado attempted only eight free throws, making five.
“There’s no such things as moral victories, we know that,” said Boyle, who has lost four times to Arizona in the Pac-12 tournament after winning that 2012 title game. “But I can live with certain kinds of results based on our effort and based on our energy and our toughness. We had that tonight in a very hostile environment.”
Boyle and Hurley are intense in their own way.
Boyle made headlines saying he had “extra satisfaction” beating Arizona in the first game because of the FBI probe that included former assistant Book Richardson arrested on federal bribery charges.
Hurley was criticized this week by — of all people — ASU president Michael Crow because of his “volcanic emotions.”
“Bobby (Hurley) hasn’t been a coach for a long period time, so he’s got to learn how to manage his volcanic emotions,” Crow told The Arizona Republic. “Those emotions. … are wasted on officials.”
NOTES: ASU G Tra Holder was a first-team All-Pac-12 selection, averaging 18.6 points game. Fellow G Shannon Evans is in a cold spell, making 14 of 49 from 3-point range (28.6 percent) in the last six games. … Colorado G George King (12.8 points and 8 rebounds per game) does not hold back from 3-point range. He has tried 150 from that far, making 58. The next highest in attempts are G Dominique Collier’s 100 (39 made). PG McKinley Wright (14.2 points and 5.3 assists per game) plays beyond his years as a freshman. … Collier is the Pac-12’s Co-Sixth Man of the Year with ASU G Remy Martin. … The Buffaloes’ No. 8 seed is their second-worst in seven appearances at the Pac-12 tournament. The 2015 team was a No. 10 seed. … Colorado has never faced ASU at the Pac-12 tournament. The Buffaloes are 0-4 against Arizona in Pac-12 tournament games played in Las Vegas.
Pac-12 Tournament Schedule
1 p.m. – (9) ASU (20-10) vs. (8) Colorado (16-14), Pac-12 Networks.
3:30 – (12) California (8-23) vs. (5) Stanford (17-14), Pac-12 Networks.
7 – (10) Oregon State (15-15) vs. (7) Washington (20-11), Pac-12 Networks.
9:30 – (11) Washington State (12-18) vs. (6) Oregon (20-11), Pac-12 Networks.
1 p.m. – (1) Arizona (24-7) vs. ASU or Colorado, Pac-12 Networks.
3:30 – (4) UCLA (20-10) vs. California or Stanford, Pac-12 Networks.
7 – (2) USC (21-10) vs. Oregon State or Washington, Pac-12 Networks
9:30 – (3) Utah (19-10). vs. Washington State or Oregon, FS1.
7 p.m. – Semifinals, Pac-12 Networks. 9:30 – Semifinals, FS1.
8 p.m. – Championship, FS1.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.