Preview: ASU at Washington State

Arizona State (12-11, 4-6) is coming off its biggest win of the season, a shocking 81-78 upset over No. 6 Arizona. After a three-game homestand in which the Sun Devils went 2-1, they are headed back on the road to take on the Washington schools. The first stop is Pullman – for a Friday night matchup against Washington State.

Anytime you knock off a sixth-ranked team – and your bitter rival – it is a great win for your program. But it’s the manner in which ASU won that is most impressive. The Sun Devils displayed extraordinary resiliency en route to capturing one of the most improbable victories in the program’s recent history. After re-capturing the lead late in the first half, ASU never squandered it again. The Wildcats closed the gap to two points on numerous occasions in the second half, but the Sun Devils always answered with a big bucket or defensive stop. ASU didn’t wilt under pressure – and in the process proved they can play on the big stage.

In an up-and-down season, it seemed as if the Sun Devils would never catch a break in a close game. They entered the contest 0-6 in games decided by 5 points or less. However, they picked a perfect time to finally get over the hump. Perhaps equally important, the Sun Devils were able to exorcise some of the demons that have haunted them all season long – turnovers and free throws. After coughing up the ball early in the game, ASU settled down and committed only three turnovers in the final 12 minutes. ASU also shot well from the line – making 22 of 28 free throws, including 10 of 12 in the last five minutes of action.

Mired in an offensive slump, ASU began Pac-12 play with four straight losses. But the Sun Devils have bounced back in a big way – winning four of their last six. ASU has re-discovered its shooting touch in recent weeks, connecting on 47.4 percent from the field, while converting 52 of 128 (40.6 percent) from three-point range in their last six games. It’s probably not a coincidence that the Sun Devils’ recent offensive surge has coincided with the rapid ascent of point guard Tra Holder. The freshman is averaging 10.7 points, 4.8 assists and 3.2 rebounds in his last six games. He is also taking better care of the ball – averaging 2.5 turnovers per game during the six-game stretch – while logging a team-high in 32 minutes per game.

Washington State (10-13, 4-7) stumbles into Friday’s matchup, having lost six of their last seven games. The Cougars have been wildly inconsistent under first-year head coach Ernie Kent, but that shouldn’t be too surprising. Washington State, who was picked to finish 11th in the Pac-12 media’s preseason poll, was short on talent and depth when Kent arrived in Pullman. Considering the circumstances, Kent has done a commendable job of maximizing the potential of this year’s roster. He has given his players creative freedom on offense, which has resulted in decent numbers – 70.5 points and 14.8 assists per game. The problem? The Cougars have struggled mightily on the defensive end. On the season, Washington State is giving up 76 points per game, which ranks 340th out of 345 Division-I teams. They have also allowed opponents to shoot 46.4 percent from the field, which ranks 321st amongst all Division-I teams.

The Cougars are led by senior shooting guard DaVonte Lacy and his 16.9 points per game, which ranks fifth among Pac-12 scorers. While the contribution of Lacy was fully expected, the emergence of sophomore forward Josh Hawkinson was not. Hawkinson, who is the front-runner for the conference’s most improved player, is averaging 15.1 points and a league-best 10.8 rebounds per game. The Cougars have also gotten a boost from rising sophomores Ike Iroegbu and Que Johnson, who played his prep ball at Westwind Prep Academy in Phoenix.

Probable Starters:

G – Tra Holder (6 PPG, 3.1 APG) vs. Ike Iroegbu (8.9 PPG, 2.7 APG)

G – Gerry Blakes (10.4 PPG, 4.1 RPG) vs. DaVonte Lacy (16.9 PPG, 2.9 RPG)

F – Shaq McKissic (11 PPG, 1.6 SPG) vs. Que Johnson (6.2 PPG, 2.6 RPG)

F – Savon Goodman (10.1 PPG, 5.9 RPG) vs. Josh Hawkinson (15.1 PPG, 10.8 RPG)

C – Eric Jacobsen (9.4 PPG, 65% FG) vs. Jordan Railey (5.6 PPG, 3.2 RPG)

Why ASU Can Win: The Sun Devils have looked like a different team since mid-January. The newcomers have finally settled into their roles, and as a result, the ASU offense has been remarkably efficient in recent weeks. The revamped offense will benefit from playing against arguably the worst defense in the Pac-12. Despite their struggles on the road this season (1-6), ASU is primed to pull out the victory.

Why Washington State Can Win: The Cougars have one of the best pure scorers in the conference with Lacy. And Hawkinson provides Washington State with a formidable low-post presence. The 6-foot-10 post player could pose a problem for the Sun Devils, who don’t have a power forward who can match his size. Additionally, Washington State has fared well at home with a 6-3 record. And if the game is close, the Cougars should have an advantage at the free-throw line. They shoot 72 percent from the line, which ranks second in the Pac-12.

Key Stat: In ASU’s first four conference games – all losses – they managed to score only 52.8 points per game on 38.1 percent shooting from the field. Since then, the Sun Devils have scored 74.7 points per game, while shooting 47.4 percent from the field.

X-Factor: Bo Barnes. The senior guard has provided a big boost off ASU’s bench in recent weeks. In the last six games, Barnes is averaging 11.7 points and 3.8 rebounds per game, while connecting on 14 of 30 from beyond the arc.

Final Score Prediction: ASU 74, Washington State 70

Game Info:

When: 9:00 p.m. MT

Where: Friel Court - Pullman, Wash.

TV/Radio: Pac-12 Network/98.7 FM

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