- Saturday saw college basketball's final three undefeated teams all lose, capped by No. 3 Arizona State falling in a tough road environment to its in-state rival.
And then there were none.
Behind strong efforts from DeAndre Ayton, Allonzo Trier and Dusan Ristic, Arizona held off a ferocious late charge from Arizona State to hand the Sun Devils their first loss of the season, 84–78, in Tucson on Saturday night. ASU entered the day as one of three remaining undefeated teams in college basketball—Villanova and TCU were the others—but all three fell before the day's end to leave the sport with zero unbeaten teams entering 2018.
Exactly how rare is this? A year ago, Matt Norlander of CBSSports.com researched when the last remaining undefeated team lost in each of the past 25 seasons, and none of those losses came before the turn of the calender year. On Saturday night, sports blog Quirky Research extended that search back to 1946, again finding no time it occurred before Jan. 1. And in the majority of those years, the last unbeaten didn't fall until February or later. That means 2017–18's feat is essentially uncharted territory.
Does this mean there's more parity than ever in college hoops? Not necessarily, though it certainly speaks to the idea of a shrinking level of separation between the game's elites and the middle of the pack. With conference play still in its infancy, only 14 teams will enter Sunday with one loss on the year. But sometimes the matter of a team still being undefeated or not can come down to factors such as scheduling, both in terms of strength of schedule and timing.
ASU's undefeated record certainly was not a result of a mediocre schedule. The Sun Devils have had a dream start in Bobby Hurley's third season, one even their most ardent fans probably didn't see coming. They started the year 12–0 with neutral-court wins over Xavier, Kansas State, and St. John's, and even a road win at Kansas, building arguably the strongest early résumé in the country. Saturday's loss, which came to the preseason No. 3 team in a hostile road environment, doesn't take away from that start.
One of the biggest differences between last year's Sun Devils and this year's has been in their frontcourt depth. The 2016–17 version was severely lacking in this area outside of the now-graduated Obinna Oleka, but the additions of redshirt freshmen Romello White and Vitaliy Shibel, JUCO transfer De'Quon Lake and Ohio State transfer Mickey Mitchell have done a lot to shore that up. Still, it's a tall task for any team to go up against the 7'1" Ayton and 7'0" Ristic and find success.
On Saturday, Ayton rang up 23 points, 19 rebounds (six offensive) and three blocks, while Ristic added 12 points and four boards. White has been Arizona State's third-leading scorer and came into the game with the 15th-highest effective field-goal percentage (69.9%) in the country, but he was largely neutralized offensively against the Wildcats, attempting just two shots and scoring two points before fouling out in 18 minutes. He wasn't the only Sun Devil to struggle; senior guard Shannon Evans II, who averages 17.8 ppg, went 3 of 14 from the field en route to scoring just seven points, and senior Kodi Justice made just two of his nine shots.
So how did the Sun Devils keep the game so close? That was thanks to Tra Holder, who poured in 31 points on 4-of-8 shooting from three and made 15 of 16 free throws. Holder nearly single-handedly brought ASU back into the game late in the second half as it cut a 12-point deficit to one, and at one point seemed like he might be able to will his team to yet another victory. Ultimately though, Arizona had just too much for its in-state rival to handle, and it started with Ayton. The big man punished ASU inside and controlled the boards, collecting nearly half of his team's 40.
Arizona State actually held its own in the battle on the glass, especially in the second half, but they shot just 32.0% from three, more than 7% below their average. The bigger story, though, may have been that the Wildcats became the first team this season to hold ASU to under 50% shooting inside the arc. Few things came easy for Arizona State in the paint going against Ayton and Ristic, which was reflected in its 17 of 41 (41.5%) two-point mark. And while Holder was able to get to the free-throw line plenty, the rest of the team did little in an area (free-throw rate) where it collectively ranks second in the country.
The home win was crucial for Arizona, which has now won eight straight since its disastrous three-loss stint in the Bahamas. Lately, the Wildcats have been playing like that trip was simply an odd aberration, especially now that Rawle Alkins is back. A few months ago, Saturday's showdown in Tuscon with the Sun Devils wouldn't have been circled on Arizona's calendar as one of its two best chances at marquee conference wins, but that's what the reality became after ASU's huge start.
Outside of a trip to Tempe for the rematch on Feb. 15, there's not currently too many other opportunities for significant wins for either team in what's so far been a down year for the Pac-12. Outside of the two Arizona schools, there are no other Pac-12 teams in either the RPI or KenPom top 40. That's not to say the rest of the schedule will be a cakewalk—in particular, UCLA recently took down SEC power Kentucky and USC and Oregon have underperformed but are still talented—but the Wildcats are already in the driver's seat in the conference thanks to Saturday's big win. When these two schools meet again in a month and a half, there may be more on the line than just an undefeated record.