|BAGNATO ON BASKETBALL: Desert duo bidding for NCAA tourney berths|
|Written by Admin|
|Wednesday, 27 February 2008 09:20|
When it came to basketball, though, it was always easy to tell them apart.
In the last 12 years, Arizona has won an NCAA title and Arizona State has won an NCAA tournament game.
The difference? Arizona was coached by Lute Olson and Arizona State by men who rarely beat him.
That's all changed this season. Ever since Olson left last fall on a personal leave of absence, the distinction has become rather blurry - to the disgust of Arizona followers and the delight of Arizona State fans, those who bother to show up at Wells Fargo Arena.
As the regular season winds down, both Arizona (they're the Wildcats) and Arizona State (that would be the Sun Devils) are bobbing at .500 in the perilous waters of the Pac-10, tied for fifth place at 7-7.
Both are flirting with NCAA tournament berths. Arizona is hoping to extend its 23-year run of consecutive NCAA appearances, the nation's longest active streak. Arizona State is trying to make it for the first time since 2003.
Both are led by fabulously talented freshmen - Arizona's Jerryd Bayless and Arizona State's James Harden - who seem destined for the NBA, perhaps as early as this summer.
And both have their work cut out for them this week, when No. 4 UCLA comes to Tempe (home to Arizona State) and Tucson (home to Arizona). The Bruins crushed the Arizona schools by a combined 55 points in Los Angeles earlier this season.
To the NCAA's tournament selection committee, Arizona and Arizona State might seem as indistinguishable as a pair of saguaro cacti. But they've taken very different journeys in this strange winter in the desert.
Start with Arizona, which is long on arrogance and short on talent. On Nov. 4, the 73-year-old Olson announced he was taking a leave of absence for undisclosed personal reasons.
Olson was replaced by assistant coach Kevin O'Neill, who was later named the eventual successor when the Hall of Famer retires. On Dec. 6, Olson said he was extending his leave through the end of the season - and he filed for divorce from his wife, Christine, on the same day.
Then came injuries to Bayless - Arizona went 1-3 without him - and point guard Nic Wise, who had knee surgery. Bayless returned with a vengeance, becoming the first Wildcat to score at least 30 points in three straight games.
``It has been a challenging year,'' O'Neill said this week. ``From Nov. 4 to now, how many years has it been?''
As rough as this year has been, the Wildcats hope they can extend it into the NCAA tourney. Bolstered by a brutal schedule and a victory last week at then-No. 17 Washington State, the Wildcats appear to be in good shape. However, they've lost four of six and are asking for trouble if they slide to the finish, especially if they can't assure tourney selectors Wise will be back for the postseason.
``Every game is a must,'' senior Jawann McClellan said. ``We don't want to leave it up to the committee.''
Arizona is unaccustomed to panting after NCAA berths. Arizona State, by contrast, is thrilled to be in anyone's mock bracket.
The Sun Devils, who often start three freshmen, have blossomed under the patience guidance of second-year coach Herb Sendek, a softspoken 45-year-old from Pittsburgh.
Sendek's first ASU team went 8-22 and lost a school-record 15 straight games, and no one could blame him for padding this year's nonconference schedule with inferior opponents. But with victories over Xavier and Stanford, Arizona State can match quality wins with most teams.
``When we play our best, we're as good as anybody that we've played so far,'' said point guard Derek Glasser, who is ninth in national assist-to-turnover ratio.
At times, the Sun Devils seem intent on boring opponents into submission, although Harden can wake up a gym with his breathtaking slashes to the bucket, punctuated by lefty dunks.
What Arizona State does is hang in there. The Sun Devils have four overtime wins, as many as the rest of the Pac-10 combined.
The Sun Devils looked finished when they lost five straight games in midseason, but one sunny Sunday afternoon they went into McKale Center, long a house of horrors for ASU teams, and beat Arizona 59-54, capping their first season sweep of the Wildcats since 1995.
Four days later, Arizona State upset then-No. 7 Stanford in overtime, erasing a 7-point deficit in the final 1:49 of regulation.
If the Sun Devils make the NCAAs, they're going to be one very tough out. Their relentless zone defense brings to mind the old Temple Owls, whom no one wanted to face in March.
``The best thing about our team - I always say this - is just the guys, the kind of people that we have on our team,'' Sendek said. ``They're easy to like. They're easy to cheer for.''
Tell that to Arizona State fans, who missed the memo on this spunky little squad. Four days after the rousing victory at Arizona, 7,566 people showed up for the Stanford game, barely half of Wells Fargo Arena's capacity.
No wonder the Sun Devils sometimes feel like the nation's best-kept hoops secret - although that may change when the NCAA brackets are revealed.
Maybe then the nation will have to learn the difference between Arizona and Arizona State.