By Jeff Munn
This is a big week in local sports. And no, my calendar is not a week behind.
If you’re a college basketball fan in Arizona, this week is huge. Anywhere you look.
Three of the four in-state Division 1 men’s programs face challenges that will go a long way to determining where they’ll be playing in March, and potentially, who they’ll play against as well.
The state’s two Pac-12 programs welcome the L.A. schools this weekend. For vastly different reasons, both games are crucial. For Arizona, at 9-2, they sit alone in first place in the Pac-12, but USC, whom they face Saturday night in a late-night ESPN special (which probably means Bill Walton…just wanted to warn you in advance), is one game behind. First place in a major conference is always a marquee attraction.
On Thursday, UCLA visits Tucson, and while the Bruins are two games behind the Wildcats, it’s UCLA. To this day, even though Arizona has won an NCAA Championship more recently, fans and media in Tucson seem to have an unhealthy obsession with the Bruins. Thursday’s game, too, is on ESPN. One way or another, you’re getting Walton, Cat fans. Deal with it.
Arizona State also has a chance to make a major statement against the Trojans and Bruins. Say what you want about their performance in the Pac-12, but Bobby Hurley’s Sun Devils are, to quote the late Dennis Green, what we thought they were in November and December. A team with an exceptionally talented backcourt and an improved front line. If ASU shoots well from outside, they win (ask Kansas and Xavier). The front line is bigger, but still not BIG. Sunday at Washington State, they shot nearly 56% from the field and won. Coincidence? Nope.
As a result, it is not unrealistic to think the Devils could regain their shooting touch over an extended period. It is also not unrealistic to think Hurley’s first weekend Pac-12 sweep since coming to Tempe could come against the Trojans and Bruins before two more large energetic crowds. Doing so would stop the murmurs of “they’ll miss the NCAA Tournament” and set them up nicely for what comes next – a rematch with Arizona.
The ASU Women are in on the fun too. A convincing weekend home sweep of the Washington schools has put Charli Turner Thorne’s Devils (17-7, 8-4 in in the Pac-12) back on the right track, just as they go to L.A. for games Friday at always-tough USC and Sunday at 9th ranked UCLA.
Which brings us to GCU. Since they arrived in the WAC, GCU’s conference schedule has essentially been a two-game season – the matchups with New Mexico State. While the Lopes have gone 2-7 against the Aggies since they joined the WAC, the fact remains these are league’s two marquee programs. A 70-59 loss to NMSU in Phoenix January 11 was a bitter pill for Head Coach Dan Majerle and his program to swallow. It is next to impossible to think Majerle’s Lopes won’t be ready for the rematch Saturday night in Las Cruses.
It’s equally hard to believe Majerle will let his team look past Thursday’s road assignment at Texas-Rio Grande Valley. Underestimating opponents is not in Thunder Dan’s playbook.
As a school and fan base, GCU needs the win Saturday for one simple reason – they, and everyone else who follows the WAC, know full well a third meeting is coming one month later. The two schools certainly will meet at the WAC Tournament in Las Vegas. A GCU victory on the road Saturday would prove to everyone, including themselves, that the Lopes can beat their biggest rival and add to the probability that third meeting would be for the tournament title, and the only NCAA Tournament berth the WAC is likely to get.
It would also be nice if the WAC figured out a way to showcase its two best programs on something other than ESPN3. What’s FS2 doing Saturday night? Poker?
ASU Media Relations Director Doug Tammaro once said every sport in the Valley gets its moment in the spotlight during a calendar year. The Super Bowl is over, pitchers and catchers don’t report until next week, and the Cardinals aren’t signing a quarterback for a while. This week is about college basketball – LOCAL college basketball. It’s not up to the three schools to sell fans on that idea. It’s up to the fans to buy in.