TEMPE, ARIZ. — Another day, another difficult task. Arizona State's James Harden will thrust. USC's Daniel Hackett will parry. And you can expect a bushel of jabs.
There are loud talking points leading into tonight's game between USC and Arizona State. The Trojans are trying to remain above sea level in Pacific 10 Conference play. The 18th-ranked Sun Devils will try to build on Thursday's victory over UCLA.
The accomplishment of those big-picture plans hinge on the in-game snapshot, about which neither Hackett nor Harden are saying cheese, or much of anything else.
"He's a multi-talented player," Hackett said. "It's a difficult task."
Harden added some syrup to that vanilla, saying, "He's a good player. We just have to play our game and have some fun out there."
All niceties get shelved at game time.
This is an obvious mano a mano matchup. Harden is the conference's leading scorer (21.6 points per game) who can scorch a team from the outside or by going to the basket. Hackett is a tenacious defender who can play with a granite-sized chip and a caustic lip. That makes co-existence on the court out of the question.
Harden will try to dictate play, as he did in the Sun Devils' 74-67 victory over UCLA on Thursday, when he had 15 points and 11 assists. Hackett will counter by trying to be the annoying defender that's in his DNA, something not present against Chase Budinger in an 83-76 Arizona victory over USC on Thursday.
This matchup worked well for the Trojans (15-8 overall, 6-5 in conference play) in January. Harden was held without a field goal for the first time in his collegiate career and finished with a career-low four points in the 61-49 USC victory. Hackett had his fingerprints -- quite literally at times -- all over that masterpiece.
"Daniel did a terrific job," USC Coach Tim Floyd said. "Guys who weren't guarding Harden understood they had a job to do to help and help. This guy gets points in transition, off screens and the majority of what they do go through him."
This isn't unfamiliar hardwood for the 6-foot-5 Hackett, who is the Trojans' one-size-fits-all defender. His last two assignments were Darren Collison, UCLA's 6-0 gnat-like point guard, and Budinger, Arizona's 6-7, 230-pound bull-like forward.
Neither was a pleasurable experience. Hackett fouled out with nine minutes left in the 76-60 loss to UCLA. Thursday, the Chase was on, as Budinger made eight of 11 shots and scored 25 points.
"I was pitiful against Budinger," Hackett said. "I let him catch the ball and get to the basket too many times. I want to show Coach Floyd I can do the job."
He already has. Hackett seemed to pick up Harden as soon as the Lakewood Artesia High graduate stepped off the bus last month. Harden got off only eight shots.
"I was able to disturb him, make him frustrated," Hackett said. "He can take it to the basket or just shoot over you. You've got to be aggressive against a guy like that."
That means Hackett could use help -- from his teammates, who were there for him in the first game, and the notoriously fickle Pac-10 referees, who took an incidental-contact approach that day.
"When you have to deny a guy, you have to use your body," Hackett said. "The referee has to see that the offensive player is being aggressive too."
Harden said that the referees were not the issue last time.
"It was one of those games," Harden said. "I only took eight shots. I wasn't into the game as I should have been."
The 6-4 Harden, who is projected as a high first-round pick in the NBA draft, has been "into it" lately. He had 36 points against Oregon on Feb. 5, scoring 25 in the second half in Arizona State's 66-57 victory. He took a different approach against UCLA, driving and dishing to teammates. Harden has led Arizona State (19-5, 8-4) in scoring in 18 games this season, but he has also led them in assists nine times.
Said Hackett: "These kind of matchups are about pride."