Preview: ASU at Arizona

Arizona State (8-5) is coming off two impressive victories at home against Detroit and Harvard. Now the Sun Devils must prepare for the rigors of another Pac-12 season, which tips off Sunday evening against their rival down south – the No. 8 ranked Arizona Wildcats (12-1).

The Sun Devils enter conference play with a revamped lineup, relying on the increased athleticism and defensive ability of this new lineup. Sophomore power forward Savon Goodman has provided a major boost to the team since he became eligible in mid-December. He was recently implemented into the starting lineup along with shooting guard Roosevelt Scott, another JUCO newcomer.

Gerry Blakes, yet another JUCO transfer, was moved from his natural shooting guard position to take over the reigns at point guard. The jury is still out on whether this new-look lineup will be the long-term answer for coach Herb Sendek. Ideally Sendek would have liked to stumble on this lineup earlier in the season, so they could work the kinks before conference play. Instead, he is hoping the offense, which has looked confused at times the last few games, will gel quickly enough to stay competitive in the Pac-12. However, one thing is for certain, this group will compete hard and play with a ton of energy on the defensive side of the ball.

The Wildcats are coming off their only loss of the season, a surprising upset at the hands of UNLV. Otherwise, they enter conference play with an unblemished record. The consensus preseason-pick in the Pac-12, Arizona boasts an impressive résumé with wins over Gonzaga, San Diego State, and Michigan. Coach Sean Miller has depended on a star-studded lineup, led by fifth-year senior point guard T.J. McConnell.

The Wildcats also have one of the best front lines in the country with Kaleb Tarczewski, Brandon Ashley and Stanley Johnson. And let’s not forget about Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, the do-everything sixth-man who is expected to be a lottery pick in June’s NBA Draft. Arizona has been one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country, shooting 50 percent from the field while committing only 12 turnovers per game. The Wildcats are not the same defensive juggernaut like last year, but they are still a formidable bunch, allowing only 60.3 points per game.

Projected Starters:

G – Gerry Blakes (12.2 PPG, 5.1 RPG) vs. T.J. McConnell (7.6 PPG, 6.3 APG)

G – Roosevelt Scott (4.1 PPG, 2.2 RPG) vs. Gabe York (9.9 PPG, 36% 3PT)

F – Shaq McKissic (10.7 PPG, 40% 3PT) vs. Stanley Johnson (14.5 PPG, 6.8 RPG)

F – Savon Goodman (15.8 PPG, 8.0 RPG) vs. Brandon Ashley (11.7 PPG, 5.6 RPG)

C – Eric Jacobsen (10.3 PPG, 67% FG) vs. Kaleb Tarczewski (8.8 PPG, 64% FG)

Why ASU Can Win: The Sun Devils have the element of surprise on their side. They enter Sunday’s game as somewhat of an unknown commodity, which could help their chances off pulling off a major upset at the McKale Center. Unlike past ASU teams that relied on three-point shooting and gimmick defenses, this current lineup will count on rebounding and defense to earn a victory.

Since the new lineup was implemented, the Sun Devils have done a better job of manufacturing points off turnovers and offensive rebounds. Easy scoring opportunities will help the Sun Devils capture a win Sunday’s matchup. Even if their offense struggles in the half-court set, at least the Sun Devils now have the personnel to get a defensive stop or rebound in the latter stages of this game.

If the game is tight and comes down to a free-throwing shooting contest, ASU will have the edge over Arizona, who shoots a paltry 64.9 percent from the line. This may be the recipe to pull off an upset.

Why Arizona Can Win: The Wildcats have more talent and experience. And unlike the Sun Devils, Arizona has used the same starting five the entire season, which is evidenced by their superior on-court chemistry. The Wildcats’ frontcourt, which resembles an NBA team with its size and athleticism, has dominated opponents in the paint this season.

Despite the Wildcats’ lack of a go-to scorer in the clutch, they have a well-balanced scoring attack with six players averaging more than 7.5 points per game. Defensively, Arizona uses its and length and speed to disrupt opponents into shooting a mere 39.4 percent from the field. Playing at home, where they have a 29-game win streak, the Wildcats should easily win this matchup if they simply play their typical game.

Key Stat: In the last two games (with the new-look lineup), the Sun Devils have held opponents to 32.7 percent shooting from the field, while forcing 17 turnovers per contest.

X-Factor: Gerry Blakes. The junior guard is the best scorer on ASU, but he now has the added responsibility of running the offense. He fared okay in his first two games as the starting point guard, but he hasn’t faced anyone like McConnell, who is one the best on-ball defenders in the country. His ability to handle the ball pressure will dictate how well ASU fares in Sunday’s matchup.

Final Score Prediction: Arizona 68, ASU 54

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