Preview: ASU at Utah

It certainly wasn’t pretty, but Arizona State (15-12, 7-7) escaped with a 64-59 victory over USC last Sunday, notching their seventh win in ten games. The victory moved the Sun Devils to .500 in conference play – a place they haven’t been all season long. However, that mark might be in jeopardy as they hit the road to take on No. 13 Utah in a Thursday-night matchup.

It certainly wasn’t pretty, but Arizona State (15-12, 7-7) escaped with a 64-59 victory over USC last Sunday, notching their seventh win in ten games. The victory moved the Sun Devils to .500 in conference play – a place they haven’t been all season long. However, that mark might be in jeopardy as they hit the road to take on No. 13 Utah in a Thursday-night matchup. The Sun Devils are coming off an abysmal shooting performance on Sunday, in which they made only 19 of 58 shots (.328), including 6-of-20 (.231) from three-point range. It was the second-lowest percentage ASU has shot in a victory during the Herb Sendek-era. The Sun Devils needed a late-game rally to defeat the short-handed Trojans, who currently sit in last place in the Pac-12. ASU trailed by as many as 10 points, before outscoring USC 23-8 over the final 9:41 of the game, including a 14-3 run in the last four minutes.

It was an important victory for ASU, who proved they could win ugly despite playing poor basketball for nearly the entire game. The Sun Devils were able to capitalize on a significant advantage at the charity stripe, converting 20 of 26 free-throws. USC only got to the line five times, making three. The Sun Devils also controlled the boards, out-rebounding the Trojans 39-33. It marked the sixth time in seven games that ASU has out-rebounded their opponent.

It was truly a team effort for ASU, who did not have anyone register more than 12 points (Gerry Blakes). Bo Barnes came off the bench to add 11 points, while Savon Goodman and Tra Holder chipped in 10 points each. However, the hero of the game was Jon Gilling, who hit the go-ahead three-pointer with 44 seconds left. Gilling, who has been a virtual non-factor in conference play, scored 7 points off the bench and hit perhaps the biggest shot of his Sun Devil career.

Utah (21-5, 11-3) enters Thursday’s matchup only one game behind Arizona in the Pac-12 standings. The Utes fell to second place after they suffered a 69- 58 loss to Oregon on Sunday. In spite of the loss, Utah is off to its best start since the 2004-05 season. They have dominated opponents this season, outscoring them by an average of 15.7 points per game, which ranks as the NCAA’s sixth-best scoring margin.

The Utes are the most balanced team in the conference – and overwhelm opponents on both ends of the court. Offensively, they average 72.6 points per game, while shooting 49 percent from the field, which ranks as eighth-highest percentage in the country. The scary thing? They’re even better on defense, where they rank among the nation’s top-ten in points allowed (56.1 per game) and opponent’s field goal percentage (37.9 percent).

Utah is led by senior guard Delon Wright, who is a front-runner to take home the Pac-12’s Player of the Year award. Wright is one of the most versatile players in the country and ranks among the conference’s top-15 in scoring, field-goal percentage, free-throw percentage, assists and steals.

The Utes have also received strong play from junior point guard Brandon Taylor, who has become one of the Pac-12’s best 3-point shooters. Freshman center Jakob Poeltl has NBA potential, but has slowed down after a quick start to the season. Jordan Loveridge has adjusted to his new role at small forward, and the three-year starter has added a more-consistent jumper to his repertoire. Chris Reyes, a JUCO transfer, rounds out the starting-five and gives the Utes an enforcer in the paint.

Probable Starters:

G – Tra Holder (6.9 PPG, 3.4 APG) vs. Brandon Taylor (10.6 PPG, 45% 3PT)

G – Gerry Blakes (11.3 PPG, 4.4 RPG) vs. Delon Wright (14.3 PPG, 5.4 APG)

F – Shaq McKissic (11.2 PPG, 4.3 RPG) vs. Jordan Loveridge (10 PPG, 45% 3PT)

F – Savon Goodman (10.9 PPG, 7.1 RPG) vs. Chris Reyes (4.6 PPG, 4.3 RPG)

C – Eric Jacobsen (9 PPG, 64% FG) vs. Jakob Poeltl (8.7 PPG, 67% FG)

Why ASU Can Win: The Sun Devils are surging – and this is not the same team that got embarrassed by Utah last month. In fact, that game seemed to be a turning point for ASU, who is 7-3 since that Jan. 15 meeting. ASU has found its groove, and is even winning games when they play bad, which is another sign of improvement. The Sun Devils should have an edge in the paint, where they have dominated opponents in recent weeks.

Why Utah Can Win: There is nothing worse than a wounded animal. And the Utes will be out for blood after suffering an 11-point loss on Sunday, their second-worst of the season. Playing at home -- where they have been perfect this season -- should provide Utah with a distinct advantage. The Utes are a team with no glaring weakness: they have an extremely efficient offense, play suffocating half-court defense and rarely turn over the ball. They are a well-coached team that typically makes the “right” play and is rarely out-worked. Add this up, and it spells trouble for the Sun Devils, who have struggled away from Tempe.

Key Stat: Utah is undefeated at home this season (16-0), while ASU has struggled on the road (2-7). That doesn’t bode well for the Sun Devils…

X-Factor: Rebounding. The Sun Devils have rebounded much better over the last month, and will need to control the boards on Thursday in order to pull off the upset. Winning the rebounding battle will also help control the tempo of the game, which is imperative against Utah.

Final Score Prediction: Utah 72, ASU 63

Game Info:

When: 8:30 p.m. MT

Where: Jon M. Huntsman Center - Salt Lake City, Utah

TV/Radio: Fox Sports 1/KTAR 620 AM


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