In the midst of a five-game home losing streak, Arizona State hosts Oregon State in what should be a favorable opportunity for the Sun Devils to get a victory in Wells Fargo Arena and stop the hemorrhage of maroon blood flowing out of Tempe.
The Beavers, led by second-year head coach Jay John have shown rapid improvement over the past several weeks in conference play following a start to the season that included losses to Portland, Hawaii and Boise State.
More recently, his team has played inspired basketball and come away with victories over Oregon and Washington State. The Beavers also lost a game to Washington in overtime after blowing a double-digit lead late in the second half. It was a game, which would have temporarily moved the club above .500% in Pac-10 play.
With nary a senior to be found on his team, John has taken a young, impressionable group and transformed it into a dangerous unit, capable of playing with any team in the conference. The Beavers hung tight in losses to UCLA and USC on the road and Thursday's game at Arizona was the team's only blowout loss of the season.
Led by the consistency of junior combo-forward David Lucas and surprising strong guard play of sophomore Chris Stephens and junior J.S. Nash, the Beavers have proved themselves to be a scrappy bunch not to be taken lightly.
Despite being severely undersize, particularly in the front court, Oregon State manages to do a fairly good job of rebounding the basketball and protecting itself on the defensive interior, either with a match-up zone look or by taking away passing lanes and utilizing double teams in the post.
Expect Ike Diogu to receive his usual bevy of rotating bodies thrown about and around him in an effort to swarm, confuse and frustrate. How he responds to this pressure may very well become a key telling point in the outcome of this contest. Often, Diogu takes too much time and attempts to force a shot up on the glass in traffic. He needs to do a better job of either attacking the basket more quickly or finding the teammate invariably left open by the defensive rotation.
It will be interesting to see how Arizona State elects to combat Oregon State's predominant usage of a quick three-guard lineup, which includes Nash, Stephens and sophomore point guard Lamar Hurd. Coach Rob Evans employed a three-guard starting lineup of his own with Jamal Hill taking the place of Serge Angounou in an effort to combat the quicker Ducks. He may go again with Hill against the Beavers to start.
Each team will start a freshman in the frontcourt with Kyle Jeffers playing opposite Keith Wooden. Expect Arizona State to most likely mix-up its defensive assignments based in part on protecting Ike Diogu, but more likely than not Diogu will match-up with Lucas to start while the freshmen battle it out underneath.
Both teams have an undersized combo-forward coming off the bench as the first option in the frontcourt. For Oregon State, it's junior college transfer Jim Hanchett, a player who put up a double-double against Arizona on Thursday while the Sun Devils counter with Allen Morill, a defensive standout still trying to find a niche offensively.
The wildcard for Arizona State is Serge Angounou, who has played very well in spots and quite ineffectively at other times as he continues to recover from a serious knee injury. If there is a contemporary player for the Beavers it is freshman Kenny Hooks, an athletic and versatile wing who is still trying to find his way at the college level.
Besides Hooks and Hanchett, the only player who garners consistent minutes off the bench for the Beavers is freshman three-point specialist Angelo Tsagarakis. Out of 111 field goal attempts by Tsagarakis on the season, an astounding 95 have been of the three-point variety.
A glaring weakness the Beavers must deal with, especially against a team with a dominant low post presence such as Ike Diogu is a lack of capable big men off of the bench. Already undersized with a frontcourt tandem of 6-9 Jeffers and 6-7 Lucas, John has shown no confidence in either true center on the roster, Kevin Field and Derek Potter. These players rarely play meaningful minutes off the bench but it may be a necessity against the Sun Devils.
The difference in this contest may very well prove to be Arizona State point guard Jason Braxton who seems to be playing with more confidence and poise than at any time in his two and a half years with the program. If Braxton is able to exploit his counterpart, Hurd, and do a good job of facilitating the Sun Devil offense and getting the ball into the hands of Diogu against an underwhelming Oregon State defensive front-court, expect a double-digit Arizona State victory. If not, this one will be close and could go either way.
Prediction: Arizona State 78 Oregon State 67
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