Preview: ASU at California

After a season-long four-game losing streak, Arizona State rebounded with a much-needed 78-72 win over Colorado last Saturday. Now the Sun Devils are headed back on the road this week to face the Bay Area schools. The road trip begins with a Thursday night matchup against the California Bears.

It was only one game, but Saturday’s victory was important for many reasons. Sure, it snapped the losing streak, but more importantly Arizona State (9-9, 1-4) re-discovered its struggling offense, which had evaded them in conference play. The Sun Devils shot 55 percent from the field, including 50 percent (10 of 20 three-pointers) from beyond the arc.

Five players scored in double figures, led by Shaquielle McKissic’s 16 points. They also got bench production from senior reserves Bo Barnes and Jon Gilling, who combined for 19 points while connecting on 6 of 10 from three-point range. However, the player of the game might have been Tra Holder. The freshman point guard had 10 points and six assists and hit some clutch free throws in the waning moments of the game.

As a team, the Sun Devils took better care of the ball, committing 14 turnovers, which is actually below their season average. But perhaps the most impressive takeaway from Saturday’s matchup was ASU’s ability to finish strong, especially from the free throw line. The charity stripe has been a source of headaches all season long, but Saturday was a different story. The Sun Devils made 13 of 17 free throws in the final 4:29 and were able to withstand a flurry of three-pointers from Colorado in the closing moments. ASU hopes this positive momentum will translate to a successful road trip.

Meanwhile, California (11-7, 1-4) limps into Thursday’s matchup in the midst of a serious slump. After posting a 10-1 record to start the season, California has lost six of their last seven, and enters the contest on a four-game losing streak. Like the Sun Devils, the Bears have had their fare share of concerns on the offensive end. In conference play, the Bears have struggled from the field, shooting only 38.3 percent, while averaging a modest 63.4 points per game. They have also had issues on the glass and rank toward the bottom of the conference in rebounding margin.

Despite the recent struggles, California has some serious talent on their roster. The Bears are led by junior point guard Tyrone Wallace, who is one of the Pac-12’s elite players. He ranks among the conference’s top ten in scoring, rebounds, assists and steals – and is projected to be a late first round pick by many NBA draft analysts. The Bears also have a pair of athletic wing players in Jordan Matthews and Jabari Bird, who provide scoring and outside shooting. In the paint, California relies on senior forward David Kravish, a lanky but talented 6-10 post player with surprising athleticism. With this much talent, one has to believe that California will eventually return to its early-season form.

Probable Starters:

G – Tra Holder (4.6 PPG, 2.7 APG) vs. Tyrone Wallace (17.9 PPG, 8.3 RPG)

G – Gerry Blakes (10.8 PPG, 4.3 RPG) vs. Jordan Matthews (15.1 PPG, 44% 3PT)

F – Shaq McKissic (11.1 PPG, 4.6 RPG) vs. Jabari Bird (9.8 PPG, 2.3 RPG)

F – Savon Goodman (10.1 PPG, 6.1 RPG) vs. David Kravish (10.7 PPG, 7.1 RPG)

C – Eric Jacobsen (10.1 PPG, 67% FG) vs. Kingsley Okoroh (2.1 PPG, 2.2 RPG)

Why ASU Can Win: Sometimes, a team simply needs to see the ball go through the hoop a few times to regain their confidence. If Saturday’s game is any indication, then the Sun Devils may finally be back on track. Propelled by one of the best shooting efforts of the season and a balanced scoring attack (five players in double figures), the Devils were able to outlast the short-handed Buffaloes.

More importantly, ASU was finally able to execute down the stretch and pushed the proverbial monkey off their back. If they can continue to shoot well and get solid point guard play from Holder and Justice, then the Sun Devils should be in good shape. California has a solid starting five, but a relatively weak bench. If ASU can capitalize on Cal’s lack of depth, the Devils might walk away with back-to-back conference wins.

Why California Can Win: Tyrone Wallace can do it all. Case in point: The 6-foot-5 point guard leads the team in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals. With his unique blend of size, speed and athleticism, Wallace is a matchup nightmare for opposing guards. He should have a distinct advantage over ASU’s inexperienced backcourt of Holder and Blakes. As a team, the Bears do a great job of protecting the ball. They average only 10.5 turnovers per contest, which is the fewest among all Pac-12 teams. ASU? Well, that’s a different story. They average a league-worst 14.9 turnovers per game. Advantage to the Bears. On paper, California looks like the more talented team, but their effort has wavered from game-to-game. A focused effort from the Bears should enable them to snap their four-game losing streak.

Key Stat: ASU is back on the road this week – and that’s bad news. They have struggled away from Wells Fargo Arena this season, with a 0-7 record in neutral site and road games.

X-Factor: Shaq McKissic. The senior forward is vital to the Sun Devils’ success. When he is playing well, it typically translates to an ASU victory. The Sun Devils are 7-3 when McKissic has scored in double figures.

Final Score Prediction: California 65, ASU 62

Game Info:

When: 9:00 p.m. MT

Where: Haas Pavilion – Berkeley, Calif.

TV/Radio: Pac-12 Network/KMVP 98.7 FM

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