Following a brutal and demoralizing 0-4 start to the Pac-10 season Arizona State finally broke into the win column with a victory over USC in Los Angeles Saturday.
It was a particularly telling outcome, an emblem of how wide open the Pac-10 is this year considering it immediately followed the Trojans' stunning victory over Arizona several days earlier; an Arizona team which thoroughly dismantled the Sun Devils several weeks ago in Tempe.
For Sun Devil fans, Saturday excitedly marked the arrival of freshman Keith Wooden as a legitimate candidate for future stardom. After playing only sporadically in each of the previous four conference games, and only six minutes against UCLA two days earlier, coach Rob Evans decided to start Wooden on Saturday. He responded with 13 points, five rebounds and zero turnovers.
The move by Evans seemed to imply a keen realization by he and his staff that it is time to throw caution to the wind and prepare a young team for the long-view by playing its most likely candidate to be the front-court anchor of the future should Ike Diogu leave early.
It was a decision that made a great deal of sense when taking into account not only the poor start to the season but also the lack of productivity being generated by the reasonable alternatives at the position.
Despite being the overwhelming choice of teammates and staff members to be the biggest surprise on the team, Allen Morill hasn't materialized as a viable threat on the offensive end, even in his second year with the program.
Similarly, freshman Wilfried Fameni has largely struggled, particularly since conference play began. Fameni was to be counted on to rebound and affect opponents with his versatility but instead he's been slow to adjust to the speed of the game at this level. A starter earlier in the season, Fameni almost didn't get off the bench against USC.
So instead of continuing to play Morill and Fameni, two players with less ultimate upside, the Sun Devils have turned to a still-raw Wooden and still-recovering Serge Angounou in a trial-by-fire of sorts.
Now, Arizona State looks to further coalesce as a group and build momentum in what may very well be the least difficult four game stretch of its conference schedule -- a home-stand against the Oregon schools followed by the Washington road trip.
First up for the Sun Devils is a game against the Oregon Ducks, led by prospective All-American Luke Jackson, a player that to this point leads the conference in offensive productivity. Jackson is arguably the most versatile player in the Pac-10 with his ability to rebound, run the floor, shoot the three-point shot, and create for himself and others off the dribble.
He'll be a load for Arizona State, a team which has played poorly in transition and struggles to defend taller, multi-faceted small forwards. Ideally the Devils would want Angounou to guard Jackson, but in his recovery from his knee injury, Angounou is as-of-yet physically unable to move laterally with enough quickness to be effective in this capacity.
Unfortunately, when the Sun Devils go big in the frontcourt with Ike Diogu, Wooden, and Angounou in order to match a big Ducks lineup and capitalize on the fact that Oregon is a mediocre rebounding team, there will be no better option than playing Angounou on Jackson.
Alternatively, Arizona State may elect to go small in order to match Oregon's propensity to run the floor. Making this more plausible is the recent strong play of senior wing Jamal Hill, who, like Wooden, had a break out game against the Trojans.
In that scenario, expect Hill to match-up with either guard Andre Joseph or James Davis – whichever is in the game – and Steve Moore to draw the difficult assignment of defending a bigger Jackson.
At times, Oregon may play Joseph and Davis simultaneously, a move that would slide Jackson over to power forward and make the Ducks significantly smaller and yet even more quick and explosive.
Interestingly, this three-guard lineup affords Arizona State its best opportunity of matching Oregon's tremendous three-point shooting output. Notably, the Ducks are best in the Pac-10 in three-point shooting offense and defense. Under coach Ernie Kent, Oregon does a tremendous job of dealing with picks and screens at the point of attack and closing out on spot up shooters.
Thankfully for Arizona State, it doesn't have to deal with ultra-quick freshman point guard Aaron Brooks who injured his hand several weeks ago and isn't expected to return to the court until February. Instead, the Ducks will start Brandon Lincoln, a talented player in his own right, but nowhere near the dynamic threat that Brooks is, especially in terms of creating opportunities for his teammates.
Lincoln will likely be forced to deal with a more confident Jason Braxton following Braxton's 12 assists and 6-of-8 performance from the foul line versus USC. The effort propelled Braxton to the top of the Pac-10 conference in the all-important assist-to-turnover category and he's also now third overall is assists-per-game.
Braxton fares better in an up-tempo transition game, and that's Oregon's forte so it will be an interesting sub-plot to follow. The Ducks generally don't like to play in a slow-down game with zone defenses and that plays to Arizona State's strengths as evidenced in the USC game on Saturday.
In the first half of that game, Henry Bibby smartly had his team in a zone and the Trojans jumped to a big early lead. In the second half however he abandoned the zone in favor of a man-to-man defense and it, along with the Sun Devils' better-than-usual long-range shooting doomed USC.
Oregon coach Ernie Kent will face a similar dilemma against Arizona State on Thursday night as Bibby did. A wide open game favors his team offensively, but hurts his team on the other end, where a methodical zone is the best recipe against ASU, and that makes for a difficult contest.
The Ducks have not beaten Arizona State in Wells Fargo Arena in three years and for Luke Jackson this will be his last opportunity to get his first win in the building.
Ultimately, this game will come down to how well Arizona State handles Jackson and Oregon's transition game and whether it can shoot the ball well enough from the outside to open up the ample opportunities that should exist in the middle against a mediocre group of defensive post players.
From Ian Crosswhite to Jay Anderson to Mitch Platt and Matt Short Oregon doesn't have a player that can stay with either Diogu or an emerging Wooden in the painted area. The more the Ducks are forced to double team Diogu or go to a protective zone the more likely Arizona State will get the open three-point looks at the rim that Oregon so rarely provides.
A week ago against UCLA the Sun Devils went an abysmal 1-13 from three-point range and suffered a sound beating. They followed up that performance however with a remarkable 10-14 from downtown against USC in a dominating come-from-behind victory.
While this statistical category may again prove to be the determining factor in this ball game, it remains to be seen which Arizona State team will show up on Thursday.
Prediction: Arizona State 81 Oregon 79
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