ASU a “different, more confident team” preparing for UofA

The Arizona State basketball team is hoping Valentine’s Day has a much a sweeter ending than the sour taste left in their mouth on their trip down to Tucson nearly a month ago.

Their 91-68 blowout loss to then number-one Arizona was about as noncompetitive as the score indicated. Many expect the rematch to be much closer. The Sun Devils (18-6, 7-4) will be with Jermaine Marshall, who missed the the first game with a groin injury, while the Wildcats (23-1, 10-1) are still adjusting to life without Brandon Ashley who is gone for the year with a right foot injury. The Devils have also won five of six since the setback.

“We’re going to be a little bit different team,” ASU associate head coach Eric Musselman told’s Brad Cesmat in a phone interview Wednesday. “After that Arizona game we were 2-3 [in the Pac-12] so we’re a different team, a much more confident team that obviously a little bit more momentum going than we had in that stage.”

Even without Ashley, the ‘Cats still have plenty of firepower, including leading scorer and former Gilbert Highland star Nick Johnson who’s averaging just a shade under 16 points a game.

“The thing to me that’s so impressive is usually a team’s leading scorer, usually that guy could be a liability somewhat defensively,” Musselman explained. “It’s just the opposite with Nick Johnson. He’s their best offensive player and he’s their best defender.”

Musselman believes Johnson has elevated his game to the point where, if the season ended today, he’d get his vote for Pac-12 Conference Player of the Year. The Devils will have to do a better job handling the pressure from Johnson and others than they did in the second half.

Another key will be getting Pac-12 Player of the Week Jordan Bachynski involved early and often offensively. He averaged 21.5 points, 12 rebounds and eight blocks in ASU’s sweep of the Oregon schools last week. He attempted only three shots in 23 minutes in the first meeting and was neutralized by his counterpart, UofA big man Kaleb Tarczewski.

Tip-off from Wells Fargo Arena is set for just after 7:00. Check back from complete post-game coverage, including locker room reaction after the game.