CU men’s basketball could be catching No. 21 ASU at right time

Jeremy Papasso / Staff Photographer
Colorado’s George King, left, and the Buffs upset Arizona State on Jan. 4 at the Coors Events Center. Since the loss, the Sun Devils have struggled in Pac-12 play.

CU men’s basketball preview: Arizona State

MATCHUP: Colorado Buffaloes (12-9, 4-5 Pac-12 Conference) at Arizona State Sun Devils (15-5, 3-5).

GAME TIME: Saturday, 6 p.m. MST, Wells Fargo Arena, Tempe, Ariz.

BROADCAST: Radio — 850 AM; TV — ESPNU.

COACHES: Colorado — Tad Boyle, 8th season (161-104, 217-170 overall); Arizona State — Bobby Hurley, 3rd season (45-40, 87-60 overall).

LEADERS: Colorado — Scoring: G McKinley Wright, Fr., 14.9 ppg; Rebounding: G/F George King, Sr., 8.1 rpg; Assists: Wright, 5.3 apg. Arizona State — Scoring: G Tra Holder, Sr., 19.2 ppg; Rebounding: F Romello White, Fr., 7.5 rpg; Assists: G Shannon Evans, Sr., 4.3 apg.

NOTES: The Buffs are 1-6 all-time at ASU. CU won its first game in Tempe after joining the Pac-12 but have lost four in a row since…CU sophomore guard Deleon Brown returned to the rotation Thursday at Arizona after missing last week’s loss against Washington due to an illness. Brown went scoreless for his second consecutive game…Wright gone just 3-for-22 on 3-pointers in Pac-12 play before going 2-for-2 at Arizona…CU freshman forward Tyler Bey scored 11 points at Arizona to post the first back-to-back games with double-digit points in his career. Bey is shooting .582 (28-for-48) in league play…King went 9-for-12 against Arizona and has shot .540 (34-for-63) over the past five games. King needs five 3-pointers to match Askia Booker for fifth-place among CU’s all-time leaders in made 3-pointers…CU plays just one game next week, with a home date against Utah on Friday.

PHOENIX — When the Colorado men’s basketball team managed to knock off both Arizona and Arizona State three weeks ago, both of which were ranked in the nation’s top 15 at the time, it was easy to believe the Buffaloes were in store for some harsh payback this weekend in the desert.

The Wildcats got their revenge on Thursday, though CU actually played very well in an 80-71 loss in which the biggest difference in the contest was that UA had legitimate NBA players on the floor and the Buffs did not.

However, that payback date at ASU on Saturday may not be as daunting a challenge as it seemed just a few short weeks ago. Over the course of January the Sun Devils have morphed from one of the biggest surprise stories in college basketball to the biggest head-scratcher in the Pac-12 Conference. And if the Buffs put together a performance similar to the one that fell just short at UA they could be in position to pick up their second win in a true road game this season.

“For us, we have to play with the same kind of effort, the same kind of energy, the same kind of focus, and hopefully we can get a couple guys that didn’t play well (at Arizona) to play better on Saturday to match this kind of intensity and toughness we showed,” CU coach Tad Boyle said. “We’ve got to figure out how to get to the (free throw) line and keep other teams off the line.”

In the weekly AP national top 25 poll that was released on Christmas morning, the Sun Devils were sitting on top of the world. ASU was 12-0 in nonconference play, a run that included impressive wins against Kansas State and Xavier in Las Vegas, as well as a victory at Kansas. In that final poll of 2017 the Sun Devils were ranked third and even garnered six first-place votes.

A month later, No. 21 ASU is facing the very real possibility of dropping out of the top 25. While the Buffs were giving Arizona all it could handle Thursday night, the Sun Devils faltered at home in an overtime loss against Utah. That defeat dropped ASU to 3-5 in the Pac-12, with losses in two of its three home games so far in league play.

“It’s a whole other team,” CU senior George King said. “Arizona, they’re an in-the-paint team. Arizona State is a perimeter team with four shooters. And they have a crafty point guard in Tra Holder. I’m looking forward to playing those guys.”

As King noted, ASU brings an entirely different defensive challenge than Arizona, which countered a hot-shooting night by the Buffs on Thursday with its own .531 mark from the field. ASU is much more perimeter-oriented, and in CU’s overtime win at home against the Sun Devils on Jan. 4 the Buffs held ASU to a 9-for-34 effort on 3-pointers.

“It will be a lot different,” CU freshman guard McKinley Wright said. “Arizona State has a lot of smaller guards that can shoot the three well. Arizona, they’re big with two 7-footers that they start together. It’s a little bit different of a game plan, but our coaching staff does a great job with scouting reports and making sure we’re ready.”

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