Battle for No. 1: ASU men’s basketball hosts No. 5 UCLA for Pac-12 supremacy

Players on the Arizona State men’s basketball team believe they are a more cohesive unit this season. They star in a high-profile meeting with No. 5 UCLA tonight at Desert Financial Arena. (Photo by Susan Wong/Cronkite News)

Arizona State men’s basketball coach Bobby Hurley has led his team to a 15-3 record before Thursday’s highly anticipated meeting with UCLA. (Photo by Brooklyn Hall/Cronkite News)

ASU guard Frankie Collins is among the reasons the Sun Devils are appearing in mock brackets for the NCAA Tournament. (Photo by Brooklyn Hall/Cronkite News)

TEMPE – The Arizona State Sun Devils are playing some of the program’s best basketball of the Bobby Hurley era, but Thursday night marks the team’s biggest challenge of the season against No. 5 UCLA at Desert Financial Arena.

Picked to finish seventh in the Pac-12 men’s basketball preseason media poll, no one predicted the Sun Devils (15-3) to enter one of the more anticipated games in the program’s history with a 6-1 conference record, only a game behind the first-place Bruins. But it’s no surprise given ASU’s ability to stay competitive against the Bruins in recent years, including last season’s thrilling triple-overtime win.

“It’s just one of those games you don’t even have to get worked up for,” said forward Desmond Cambridge on his first time playing the Bruins. “We’re ready. They’re in first place, we’re in second place … there’s a lot on the line.”

UCLA has looked untouchable en route to an undefeated 7-0 mark in conference play during its current 13-game winning streak.

What makes UCLA a tough opponent is the team identity coach Mick Cronin has developed since he took over in 2019. His players understand their roles and how to win as a team, led by star players Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Tyger Campell two years removed from the team’s Final Four run.

Defensively, UCLA’s strength of rotating and close-outs forces opponents to make a play to beat the Bruins. Offensively, Cronin preaches ball movement and finding the best shot on every offensive possession, leading to patience and composure. The team’s ability to stick to a game plan and depth of talent makes the Bruins competitive night in and night out.

Guard Devan Cambridge is excited about the direction of the program and said, “I promise y’all that we’re going to change the culture here and I think we’ve kept our part.” (Photo by Susan Wong/Cronkite News)

Guard Devan Cambridge is excited about the direction of the program and said, “I promise y’all that we’re going to change the culture here and I think we’ve kept our part.” (Photo by Susan Wong/Cronkite News)

“They’re good positionally – they have a shot blocker, experienced players, good IQ players. They have a coach that demands it, and they create turnovers,” said Hurley on UCLA’s defense. “Those guys play extremely hard at that end, and they’ve got winners – guys who have won a lot of games there.”

Cambridge – last week’s Pac-12 Player of the Week for his outstanding play on the road in wins against Oregon and Oregon State – remembers the disappointment in their home loss on New Year’s Eve against Arizona to help prepare him for their matchup on Thursday. In his words, he came out too intense and the Sun Devils had to play catch-up in the second half.

“In that game, I would say I was overly prepared and too ready for the game,” Cambridge said. “I feel like just overthinking the game and what you’re going to do. It can really take away from just being in the moment and being ready to play the game and how the game goes.”

The Sun Devils are focused on starting strong early against the Bruins after developing a habit of first-half offensive struggles this season, as seen against Arizona where they were down 45-28 at halftime. Against a team like UCLA, having to fight back from an early deficit is a hard way to win. ASU likely will be forced to hit some shots early from the perimeter, as UCLA’s ability to defend inside the paint is stellar.

“We’ve been putting ourselves behind in games early,” Hurley said. “Trying to get off to a better start will help in a big game because the Arizona game here we did not. We were down big and we had to fight our way back, and we did not have enough to finish it.”

This is an important game to both teams, but ASU has more on the line. The Sun Devils were recently added as an NCAA tournament team as the No. 9 seed in Joe Lunardi’s latest bracketology and will need a signature win to keep building their regular-season resume. High-profile games against ranked opponents can not only build off the momentum they have established this season but can really put the Sun Devils in a good spot to secure a bid to the NCAA tournament and continue transforming the culture of Sun Devil basketball.

“I promise y’all that we’re going to change the culture here and I think we’ve kept our part,” said guard Devan Cambridge. “Y’all pack that thing up on Thursday and you know we’ll come to play.”

James Dalpino jayms dal-PEE-no
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

James Dalpino expects to graduate in May 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in communications. Dalpino has interned with Back Sports Page and the Pecos Independent Baseball League.

Susan Wong soo-zin wah-ong (she/her/hers)
Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Susan Wong expects to graduate in May 2023 with a master’s degree in mass communication. Wong, who earned a bachelor’s in sports journalism in May 2022, is a digital media intern with Sun Devil Athletics.

Brooklyn Hall BROOK-lyn hall (she/her)
Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Brooklyn Hall expects to graduate in May 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Hall has interned with the Amarillo Sod Poodles and is currently interning with the Arizona Diamondbacks on their DBTV crew.

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