Preview: UCLA at ASU

Arizona State (13-12, 5-7) departed Seattle on Sunday with a 78-68 win over the Huskies, earning a split on the Washington road trip. Now they must prepare for a Wednesday night matchup against UCLA – their third game in six days. There will be additional buzz surrounding the nationally-televised game, with the jersey retirement of James Harden scheduled for halftime.

Harden, a three-time NBA All-Star and the league’s leading scorer this season, is heading into rarified air when his No. 13 is lifted into the rafters at Wells Fargo Arena. Only six other players have had their number retired by ASU. The other members include Joe Caldwell (No. 32), Lionel Hollins (33), Eddie House (5), Lafayette Lever (12), Alton Lister (53) and Byron Scott (11). At only 25 years old, Harden will be the youngest player to have his number retired – and the only one to be honored during his playing career.

The halftime festivities may steal the spotlight, but the actual game should be an intriguing matchup of two teams peaking late in the season. The Sun Devils enter the contest having won five of their last eight. After a slow start in the first half of Sunday’s game, ASU responded with 48 second-half points on 58.6 percent shooting from the field. For a second straight game, Gerry Blakes led the team in scoring with 23 points, including 17 points in a 5:23-stretch in the second half. It was a memorable weekend for the junior guard who averaged 23.5 points (18 of 34 field goals) and 6.5 rebounds on the road trip.

Another takeaway from Sunday’s matchup was the Sun Devils’ dominance on the glass. ASU outrebounded Washington 44-26, including 18-9 on the offensive end. That led to 42 points in the paint for the Sun Devils and 13 second-chance points. Savon Goodman was a monster on the glass, grabbing 13 rebounds in the game. The sophomore forward, who has elevated his play in recent weeks, averaged 13.5 points and 13.5 rebounds per game on the Washington road trip.

UCLA (16-10, 8-5) enters the contest as one of the hottest teams in the Pac-12, winning eight of their last eleven games. The recent surge has put the Bruins firmly on the bubble – and in contention for an at-large bid. UCLA is one of the worst shooting teams in the league – they shoot 41.6 percent from the field and 66.3 from the free-throw line – but compensate with outstanding rebounding. The Bruins average 39.8 boards per game, which ranks 13th nationally.

The Bruins have a well-balanced scoring attack with all five starters averaging in double figures. The three-guard lineup of Norman Powell, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton can score and hand the ball effectively. Powell, a senior shooting guard, leads the team in scoring (16 points per game) and has taken more a leadership role this season. Alford is one of the most productive lead guards in the Pac-12 and ranks among the conference’s top-ten in both scoring and assists. In the frontcourt, UCLA is paced by freshman Kevon Looney, who is a double-double waiting to happen. The talented power forward has 13 double-doubles in 26 games -- the most by any freshman in the country. Junior center Tony Parker rounds out the starting five. Parker, who trimmed down significantly over the summer, has made significant strides since last season.

Probable Starters:

G – Tra Holder (6.5 PPG, 3.2 APG) vs. Bryce Alford (15.4 PPG, 5.3 APG)

G – Gerry Blakes (11.4 PPG, 4.3 RPG) vs. Norman Powell (16 PPG, 2 SPG)

F – Shaq McKissic (11.1 PPG, 1.5 SPG) vs. Isaac Hamilton (10.2 PPG, 3.7 RPG)

F – Savon Goodman (10.5 PPG, 6.8 RPG) vs. Kevon Looney (12.4 PPG, 9.9 RPG)

C – Eric Jacobsen (9.4 PPG, 64% FG) vs. Tony Parker (10.6 PPG, 7.3 RPG)

Why ASU Can Win: The Sun Devils will benefit from a rocking Wells Fargo Arena, which should be at near capacity to honor The Beard. Aside from the home-court advantage, ASU is beginning to gel into a cohesive unit that understands their roles. Holder has emerged as the steady point man, Blakes has become the go-to scorer, McKissic continues to be an all-around contributor, while Goodman and Jacobsen have become a formidable duo in the paint. Collectively, they are playing unselfish on the offensive end, and despite their inconsistent play on defense, they have seemed to figure out how to get timely stops in the latter stages of the game. If the Sun Devils can get the Bruins into foul trouble, they might be able to exploit a painfully thin UCLA bench.

Why UCLA Can Win: Aside from Arizona, the Bruins might have the most talented starting-five in the Pac-12. On the offensive end, they utilize the three-guard lineup as well as anyone, and space the floor effectively to set up the dribble-drive. UCLA likes to push the ball up-and-down the floor when the opportunity presents itself, which could pose a problem for ASU’s lackluster transition defense. However, what makes the Bruins extremely difficult to defend is the versatility of Looney, who is projected to be lottery pick in June’s NBA Draft. With his size and athleticism, the freshman forward is a matchup nightmare for opponents. Defensively, UCLA has their shortcomings, but they do a stellar job of limiting opponents to one shot. The Bruins are one of the best rebounding teams in the country.

Key Stat: If this past weekend is any indication, it appears that Gerry Blakes likes to play in crunch time. In the final 12 minutes of the last two games, Blakes has scored 34 points, making 12 of 19 field goals, including 5 of 10 from 3-point range.

X-Factor: Bench scoring. Typically the Sun Devils would have a distinct advantage over the Bruins, who arguably have the thinnest bench in the conference. However, ASU has gotten little production from their reserves, which have scored a combined ten points (in 63 minutes) in the last two games. Even worse, ASU might be without senior reserve Bo Barnes for a second straight game. He is listed as a game-time decision.

Final Score Prediction: ASU 76, UCLA 71

Game Info:

When: 7:00 p.m. MT

Where: Wells Fargo Arena

TV/Radio: ESPN2/98.7 FM

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