Memphis Hoops Preview

Arizona State returns to the NCAA Tournament after an eight-year absence with a first round game against a tough Memphis Tigers squad in the West Regional. The game will be played on Thursday in Oklahoma City at 5:10 p.m. MST, 6:10 CT. Here's the breakdown of the game.

Over the last week and a half since ASU (19-11; 11-7) swept the Oregon schools to close the regular season Sun Devil fans debated where the team would be seeded in the NCAA Tournament. Many hoped to avoid playing in the dreaded #8 versus #9 game for fear of meeting a #1 seed should ASU make it through to the second round. The general consensus was that a #10 seed would result in facing a first round opponent equally as talented and a considerably easier second round match-up. Unfortunately Sun Devil fans received their wish and it turned out to be a situation far less desirable than anticipated.

Not only are the Sun Devils in most difficult regional bracket of the four, but first round opponent Memphis (23-6; 14-2) is far and away the best #7 seed in the Tournament. The Tigers racked up non-conference wins against Syracuse and Illinois, beat Louisville on the road and finished the regular season with 12 straight wins in a tougher-than-usual Conference-USA which finished higher in conference RPI ratings than the Pacific-10 for the first time in years. Over the course of the last two months Memphis has played as well as any team in the country with the possible exception of Kentucky.

Tigers coach John Calipari is in the third year of a rebuilding effort that saw his program snubbed by the NCAA selection committee last year before going on to win the NIT Championship. Calipari, you may remember, built quite a program at UMass in the mid-90's culminating with a Final Four appearance in his final season, 1995-96, and Naismith National Coach of the Year honors.

This year, Calipari has done a terrific job of blending a very deep and versatile team into a quality on-court product that features star forward Chris Massie, a 6'8 senior, as its centerpiece. Massie is a mature and physically imposing 25-year-old player who, interestingly enough did not play organized basketball through high school and instead earned a general equivalency degree and worked for a Houston electrical company. Massey was "discovered" playing basketball on the tough street courts of Houston and soon he was playing Junior College basketball for perennial Southern California powerhouse Ventura. Within one year Massie was named to the JUCO All-American team and was being courted by a great many of the nation's finest basketball institutions before selecting Memphis and Calipari.

Massie is a strong low-post player, not unlike ASU star freshmen Ike Diogu in terms of size and skill level. He missed the first month of the season due to being academically ineligible, but came back with an immediate impact, putting up 13 points and 12 rebounds in only 17 minutes in a big win over Illinois. He's a tremendous rebounder and finisher around the basket, but doesn't have as much of a face-up game as Diogu. Still, he's one of the most dangerous players in the country on the low-block and as difficult as any frontcourt player the Sun Devils have faced all season, with his averages of 16.5 points and 10.7 rebounds per game.

Part of what makes Massie so effective is the talent level of his supporting cast. In the frontcourt he starts alongside fellow senior Earl Barron, a true 7 footer capable of playing that game at a very high level and dynamic freshmen Rodney Carney, a 6'7 elite level athlete. Barron is the most experienced player at the school, with over 100 starts, but he's a hit-or-miss type who often either plays great or disappears entirely. Case in point, last year's NIT Final Four in New York City where Barron went scoreless in the semifinal before exploding for a career high 25 points in the final game against South Carolina.

Though he's never put up numbers that show what he's really capable of, Barron has very post-moves including a jump hook as a signature move. He's capable of break out games that make Massie's skills all the more deadly in the post because when he's playing well, it's impossible to double off of him defensively. Carney is a long-armed high-riser who is the team's best shot blocker and finisher on the break. He's also one of four players on the team capable of stepping out and hitting the three-point basket with regularity. Carney is third on the team in scoring average at almost 10 points per game and fourth on the team in rebounding with nearly 5 per contest.

In the backcourt, Memphis starts Antonio Burks, a 6' junior, at the point, and 6'4 sophomore Anthony Rice at shooting guard. Burks is a strong, speedy guard, terrific at getting to the glass off the dribble and facilitating the team's offense. He has a solid 3:1 assist-to-turnover ration and he can score off penetration (9.5 ppg.), though he isn't much of a threat along the perimeter. Rice is more of a traditional off guard. He can create his own shot, spot up in the inside-outside game and also slash to the hoop via a variety of cuts and screens.

Off the bench the Tigers have a plethora of players that can do legitimate damage. A large portion of the offense output is provided by 6'6 senior forward John Grice, who is versatile enough to play as many as three positions on the floor. Grice is arguably the team's best shooter and also is second on the team in both scoring (11.7 ppg.) and rebounding (6.4 rpg.). Despite coming off the bench for most of the last month, Grice has started 15 games and is third on the team in second on the team in overall minutes played.

Others that contribute heavily off the bench include 6'4 freshman Jeremy Hunt, 6'5 sophomore Billy Richmond and 6'9 sophomore Duane Erwin. Hunt started the first game of the year and his first as a collegiate player against Syracuse and played marvelously in the win. Unfortunately he suffered a broken bone in his left foot and missed the majority of the non-conference slate. Nonetheless, he's a very talented player capable of playing either position in the backcourt and he's fourth on the team in scoring at 9.7 per game. Richmond is another superb athlete (notice a trend?) and more of a scorer than a shooter, averaging 8.9 points in the balanced attack. Erwin is primarily the defensive threat, who is quite capable of helping out in the low block with his excellent size and positioning.

Memphis is an extremely talented team, with the ability to exploit an opposing squad in a variety of ways. The Tigers are good in transition with the athletes to run the break and finish, but also excel in a half court offense that features pro sets with a strong emphasis on inside-outside play and protection of the basketball that generally results in quality shot attempts most trips down the floor. Memphis uses a lot of cuts to the basket and spot up three-point shooting, even in transition, though it's certainly less prominently featured by this team than say, Oregon or Kansas.

It's the versatility of the team that makes it so hard to defend. Keying in on Massie with weak side help could ultimately backfire, as with a packed in zone. Memphis isn't a great shooting three-point team, but certainly a streaky good and overall decent shooting squad that can burn you when given the opportunity. Probably the most likely defensive presentation by the Sun Devils will be a straight man look with an effort on preventing Massie for catching the basketball in his comfort zone. It will be incumbent upon Diogu to hustle down the court and deny Massie position. If anyone is cable of doing this it's Diogu with his strong trunk and similar center of gravity.

The Devils may mix in some help defense with the double team likely coming from the point guard position. Massie hasn't proven himself to be a good passer out of the low block and when he does catch the all in relatively healthy position, the best bet is attempting to make him a passer. Since the three-point shooting of the Tigers is least intimidating from the point guards, it may be Kyle Dodd or Jason Braxton that spends the most time helping Diogu on Massie.

On offense ASU is, at this point, well prepared for just about every defensive alignment imaginable. Teams like Purdue and Cal have tried to run an extended half-court man-to-man defense similar to what Calipari favors and it proved to be the defense that ASU handled best all year. The Sun Devil players, particularly starting forwards Tommy Smith and Shaun Redhage, and blindingly-quick guard Curtis Millage feel most comfortable in the ASU motion offense, whether it be the 4 out 1 in with Diogu working his way around the key, or the open-post offense. All of these players are excellent off the dribble, particularly in a more open half-court environment.

Overplaying ASU in a man-to-man defense on the perimeter is similarly a bad idea. Kyle Dodd led the Pac-10 in assist to turnover margin with a staggering 6:1 ratio, far and away better than any of his peers. He won't turn the ball over, and since Dodd isn't a great shooter, anyway, playing him tight way out onto the floor only opens the court up more for the Devils.

If Calipari decides to stick with a man defensive scheme, he'll learn that defending Diogu in the post one on one is an impossible proposition for anyone on his roster. More than likely he'll send help to double and even triple Diogu in various forms and fashions. It will be up to Diogu's teammates to find the open spots on the floor for mid-range opportunities as well as make cuts to the basket in a counteractive measure to the Memphis presentation.

Should Memphis decide to employ a zone defense, there's nothing that ASU hasn't seen this year, and a real advantage would be the lack of practice the Tigers would have in terms of perfecting such an attack. The Tigers, from all reports, haven't played zone defense all year and that's in part because the team really hasn't had to. But defending Diogu, a player who has scored double figures in every game this year, is an experience unlike any the Tigers will face all season.

Since Arizona State is one of the best teams in the nation in field goal percentage, this game will come down to, in large part, the ability of the Sun Devils to get quality attempts from the field and hit such shots with regularity. When overly reliant on three-point shooting, the Devils have generally lost just in just about every instance. With high emphasis on ball movement and deft passing, the Devils have a chance to beat Memphis, when combined with a supreme effort defensively, and on the glass, where the Tigers often dominate.

This has all the makings of an excellent starting point for another great March Madness. The only difference is this year, with Arizona State in the field for the first time since 1995, there's already far less madness and much more of March.

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