By Caleb Jones
TUCSON – The Arizona Wildcats and Arizona State Sun Devils looked as if they might be headed toward equally dominating basketball seasons when the calendar turned to 2023. Arizona took a 13-1 record, 2-1 in the Pac-12, into the New Year. And ASU was also 2-1 in league play and 11-3 overall.
However, the Wildcats and Sun Devils turned in opposite directions in January as the Wildcats stumbled to a 4-3 start in conference play while Devils sprinted to a 6-1 mark.
However, after the in-state rivals played host to weekend games against USC and UCLA, they found themselves on equal ground again – in a three-team tie with the Trojans in the Pac-12 standings.
After suffering a second straight loss to Oregon on Jan. 14, No. 11 Arizona rebounded to top USC, 81-66, last Thursday then took down league-leading and fifth-ranked UCLA, 58-52, in Saturday’s quick turnaround at McKale Center.
Meanwhile, with a chance to establish themselves as a serious contender for the Pac-12 regular-season title, the Sun Devils lost to both of the Los Angeles schools at Desert Financial Center.
“They’re huge,” Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said of his team’s two big wins. “You’re going game by game, and you’re in a regular conference season. I told our guys I’m proud of them. Obviously, it was UCLA’s first loss and we have had three. So I told our guys we still haven’t earned the right to talk about a Pac-12 championship. You have to earn that right.”
Oumar Ballo led three UArizona players in double figures with 26 points and added eight rebounds against the Bruins. Starting guard Kerr Kriisa, who chipped in seven points, shared a similar sentiment as his coach about returning to the Pac-12 regular-season championship race.
“Obviously they were big wins,” Kriisa said. “These are the (games) we have to win at home especially. We are not really thinking about the title race right now. We just have to get better.”
For the Wildcats, the two victories were highlighted by staunch defense, providing a reason for optimism as the Pac-12 race unfolds. The Wildcats held the Trojans and Bruins to 36.9% and 31.3 percent shooting, respectively.
Lloyd credited the team’s overall aggression as part of the reason that the defense stepped up over the two games. He also said he believes this Wildcats squad has “real defensive potential.”
“I think you put the two games together, and I think it was our best defensive weekend,” Lloyd said.
Again, Kriisa echoed his coach.
“I think today we proved we can win low-scoring games,” he said. “Everybody keeps talking about our offense, our offense, our offense, but nobody really talks about how good our defense is. I think today we proved that we are really gritty.”
Arizona put on an impressive performance over the homestand, but Lloyd said the Wildcats have to keep their focus fixed on their upcoming trip to the Pacific Northwest. The Wildcats face Washington State Thursday then move on to Seattle to face the Washington Huskies Saturday.
“We took a step today, but you know what? We’ve got to go up and play those Washington schools (this) week and both of them, to be honest with you, got the better of us down here,” Lloyd said. “So we have a lot of work to do.”