University of Arizona basketball coach Sean Miller will be happy when Arizona State senior point guard Remy Martin graduates.
Miller’s Wildcats and Martin’s Sun Devils are rivals. And the teams will be squaring off on Thursday in Pac-12 play at Desert Financial Arena, then again on Monday at Tucson’s McKale Center.
In Martin’s four games over two years as a starter he’s averaging 25 points a game against Arizona. As a freshman Martin came off the bench and earned Sixth Man of the Year honors in the conference. Miller sensed his impact on the Sun Devils even then.
“I have always had a lot of respect for Remy as a player dating back to when he was sixth man. That year, his freshman year he came in off the bench and it was like a volt of electricity that entered the game because he impacts the game in so many ways,” Miller said in his weekly Zoom call with the local media.
“He shoots the ball, he’s great driving and scoring. He gets fouled a lot and then defensively he makes energetic big plays. Not just steals, deflections. Sometimes it’s just his overall pressure. It’s contagious. He inspires the other four players to join him.”
It’s been awhile since the Sun Devils (4-6, 1-3) have been at their best though. Chalk that up to injuries and coronavirus interruptions that forced the cancellation or postponement of five games. They come into this contest riding a four-game losing streak and they’re just a last-second Remy Martin shot against Grand Canyon away from having lost six straight.
Like last year the Sun Devils have started conference play losing three of their first four games, but the last three losses have come down to the last possessions. ASU lost at Oregon State 80-79 on Saturday, but ASU coach Bobby Hurley has seen improvement.
“We did a lot of things that would equate to winning against Oregon State. I think we are on the right track and we’ve got to continue doing the things that we’ve been doing, giving ourselves chances to win, and hopefully it will turn around,” Hurley said in his Zoom session with the media, just ahead of Miller’s. “When you are losing you wonder if you’re ever going to win again. That’s the feeling in my stomach right now. It’s not something that sits well with any of us. We hate to lose and we’re all competitors. We’re in pain right now and we got to figure out a way to get out of it.”
The Sun Devils have yet to play a game this season with a full complement of players. Eight have missed multiple games. Against USC and UCLA Hurley was without four players, two of them starters.
Martin (16.9 ppg) missed those games to attend his grandfather’s funeral. He played against Oregon State, going just 3-for-13 from the field but he had eight assists, no turnovers and went 8-for-8 from the free-throw line in his first game in a month.
It was more than a month between games for Marcus Bagley (13.3 ppg, 7 rpg), who was out for three games with a strained calf sustained in a December game at Cal.
The Sun Devils are nearing full strength now. Sophomore forward Jalen Graham has been out with mononucleosis and returned to the practice floor on Wednesday, but junior forward Taeshon Cherry remains away from the team for personal reasons.
The Wildcats (10-3, 4-3) are a plus-9 in rebounding margin, while ASU is a minus-9 so that will be a key factor. Arizona has five players averaging double figures with three who have surpassed 30 points in a game. Junior guard James Akinjo (13.5 ppg, 5.7 apg) and freshman forward Bennedict Mathurin (12 ppg, 4.8 rpg) have led the way.
The second meeting between the teams was originally scheduled for March 6 in Tucson, but it was moved to Monday, meaning the teams will play in back-to-back games within five days. The change was made so that both have that final week to make up games that had been postponed.
“It’s a different scenario but probably one that was necessary just with the postponements and leaving that final week available to try and get additional games in,” Hurley said. “Outside of that, we’re starting to get healthier as a team. We’re starting to get into better routines with our practice and with our training.”