After its latest home-stand, Arizona State currently sits at an even 8-8 on the season and 2-5 in Pac-10 play. Four of those Pac-10 loses have come at home and that puts the Sun Devils in desperate need of road victories if it has aspirations of being among the eight teams in Los Angeles in March for the Pac-10 Conference Tournament.
With future road games still to be played at Stanford, Arizona, Oregon and California, it seems unlikely Arizona State will finish above .500% in the Pac-10 and it's a tenuous enough situation that missing the Pac-10 Tournament is a very real possibility worth mentioning.
There will be no easier opportunity to sweep a road trip than this week in Washington. In order to even begin to entertain thoughts of getting back into the top-half of the Pac-10, the Sun Devils must sweep this weekend and get back to within a game of .500% in conference play.
The Sun Devils will first meet up with the Washington State Cougars (8-9; 2-5) in Pullman on Thursday for a contest, which undoubtedly will test the patience of a young team seemingly incapable of playing with poise over a full 40 minutes.
First-year Washington State coach Dick Bennett has implemented his trademarked slow-down offense that he became known for at Wisconsin in the 1990's. Despite not yet having the ideal personnel to fully realize his scheme, Bennett has the Cougars playing respectable basketball, already duplicating last season's total Pac-10 win total through seven games this year.
Senior point guard Marcus Moore leads the team in assists and scoring average and he is at the center of everything Washington State does. Even though he's not the type of player who is naturally best suited for slow-down basketball, he's played well for the most part this season. At 6-5 he has great length and versatility and he's crafty enough that he will be a significant test for Jason Braxton.
Considering his reputation as a lead guard who likes to play with seeming reckless abandon in a wide-open contest, this should be a great indicator of how far along Braxton is in terms of maturation and his ability to moderate a ball club at different speeds.
The Cougars are smallish to begin with, and Bennett suspended 6-7 forward/center Ezenwa Ukeagu for last week's contest against Washington and this week's games leaving the team with very few legitimate options in the frontcourt. Shamie Gill, a 6-9 forward will likely start in the middle alongside two wing forwards, 6-6 Chris Schlatter and 6-6 Jeff Varem.
Gill isn't much of an offensive threat but he is capable on the glass and defensively in the post. Schlatter is versatile with length, but not really an impact player at either end. Varem, a Nigerian in his first year with the club, is the team's most potent scorer on the wing. He can slash to the basket, rebound on the offensive end and just generally create match up problems with his bulk and athleticism.
Arizona State should have the ability to play a bigger lineup and command control of the glass, limiting an average shooting club to one attempt per trip down the floor.
If Braxton and his teammates can continuously pound the basketball into Ike Diogu in what looks to have the makings of a half-court game, it's possible that Diogu could push Gill into foul trouble and dramatically reduce Washington State's chances of winning. This is because the Cougars are quite possibly more limited off the bench in the frontcourt than any other team in the league.
As a result of Ukeagu's absence and the lack of any offensive post threat, Washington State will likely rely on its three-point shooting capabilities. In last week's game against Washington minus Ukeagu, the Cougars hoisted 20 three-point attempts.
Along with Moore, backcourt mate Thomas Kelati will definitely be the primary long-range threat among the likely starters. Kelati is the team's second-leading scorer and he has enough length to make for an imposing defensive assignment for Steve Moore or the other Sun Devil wings.
Off the bench, Bennett relies on Randy Green, a three-point specialist to come in and be an offensive spark for a team that often needs it. Other possibilities here included Anthony Grant, and back-up walk-on point guard, Isaiah Simmons, who actually might be the team's best pure passer.
This game could come down to how well Washington State's guards shoot the long ball versus how effective Arizona State is at generating high-percentage opportunities for Diogu, not to mention freshman Keith Wooden, in the painted area.
Prediction: Arizona State 66 Washington State 61
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