Despite storming back from a 16-point deficit to take the lead with less than a minute left, Arizona State lost a heartbreaker to Stanford Thursday on a put-back by Josh Childress with less than ten seconds remaining in regulation.
The Pac-10 conference can be brutal in that a game lost on Thursday must be absolved from the mind by Friday and rebounded from on the hardwood by Saturday.
There is no rest for the weary, no comfort for those filled with doubt, no sympathy from the next opponent.
No choice in the matter.
And so for the Sun Devils it's on to the next. In this instance next being Cal (5-7; 1-2), a team struggling against expectations as much as any in the Pac-10. It's a team coming off a blowout loss in Tucson to Arizona on Thursday, a home loss to the Washington State Cougars last week and earlier non-conference losses on its own court to Air Force and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
The Golden Bears, led by Coach Ben Braun are similar to the Sun Devils in that they are attempting to assimilate a number of new and important players into the program as quickly as possible. It's an effort that has been largely unsuccessful up to this point.
Despite having the services of the clear front-runner for the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year Award in 6-8, 250-pound Leon Powe, the Bears have not been able to take advantage of his remarkable productivity where it actually counts -- the win column.
Powe is averaging a double double on the season and he leads the conference in per-game rebounding average. Essentially he's a slightly less-productive version of Ike Diogu, at least on the offensive end of the court.
Against Arizona on Thursday, Powe sat out the game with a swollen knee. He is considered probable for the contest on Saturday, but may not be at full strength.
Unfortunately for Cal, the real problem has been the disappointing way in which the returning members of the squad have performed surrounding Powe.
Amit Tamir, an early favorite for a spot on the All-Conference team, has been abysmal at times and mediocre throughout and Richard Midgley has regressed from his breakthrough freshman campaign now that he's playing more off the ball.
The new players being counted on most for Cal are freshman wing Marquis Kately and freshman point guard Ayinde Ubaka.
Kately is a thickly built, athletic player who reminds a little bit of former Cal wings Joe Shipp and Brian Wethers. He handles the ball well and is a scorer, a versatile defender and an all-around fine talent.
Ubaka is a fantastically built, athletic lead guard. He has been a little up-and-down in his play of late but he should prove to be a strong player before his career is finished. Being an effective freshman point guard in the Pac-10 is a challenging task to say the least.
In the meanwhile, senior A.J. Diggs, a defensive specialist has been playing a lot of minutes at the position and sporadically starting as well. He poses little threat offensively, but as an on-ball defender he may be the best at point guard in the league.
The rest of the team's bench rotation is still not entirely set. Lately it's seemed as though freshman small forward Dominic McGuire has established himself a more-regular threat to see quality minutes in the frontcourt than most of his teammates. McGuire is long, lean and somewhat raw offensively. He does appear to be a promising prospect.
In the post, Cal has given sporadic looks to a number of players, most notably senior Gabriel Hughes, sophomore David Paris and fellow sophomore Rod Bensen. None of the three has been a regularly counted on player of the bench, but Hughes and Paris are at least adequate substitutes in spot duty situations.
For Arizona State, Serge Angounou comes off his relatively successful career-debut in which he played 22 minutes and generally displayed fantastic energy and effort, and a much-needed extra presence on the glass.
His leg strength, quickness and explosiveness are nowhere near where they will be several months from now with more games under his belt, but even so he should soon crack the starting lineup baring a setback. At the 70-80% that Angounou is probably at now, he's still dynamic enough to be one of the better players on the Arizona State roster and that was clearly evident on Thursday.
Look for the Sun Devils to attempt to play two athletic shooters on the court simultaneously more often in this game in order to match-up with and even exploit the defense of the Golden Bears. You may see Steve Moore and Jamal Hill playing at the same time, or at the very least Angounou and Moore. Without McGuire in the lineup, the Bears aren't particularly tall on the perimeter unless they shift Tamir to small forward and so it presents a number of interesting options for ASU.
Another interesting subplot to watch for is how well Powe fares against Diogu in what will be the biggest test of his young career. It very well could be the most telling individual battle of the game. If Powe can stay within 10-12 points of Diogu on the offensive end, and if Tamir and Midgley can be a little more productive shooting the ball from the arc, the Devils may have a tough time in this, what amounts to a must-win conference game.
If not, Arizona State should roll to its first conference win of the season.
Prediction: Arizona State 70 Cal 64
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