Halfway through conference play it seems unlikely that Arizona State, tied for last place in the Pac-10, could go into Maples Pavilion and come away with a win against undefeated Stanford.
But then again, that's why they actually play these games.
Earlier in the year the Cardinal came to Tempe and escaped with a dramatic one-point win when Josh Childress scored on a put-back attempt with less than a minute remaining.
At the time, it seemed as though that loss could be used as a launching point for the Sun Devils, a squandered opportunity turned into a rallying event. Since then however, the team has perhaps deteriorated to a point unseen in recent history.
Nevertheless, Arizona State gets a second opportunity to turn a game against the Cardinal into a positive momentum builder. This one however, might be a more difficult task considering the game's location.
One thing working in the Sun Devils' favor is the anticipated absence of Stanford starting power forward Justin Davis and his replacement in the lineup, 6-10 sophomore Matt Haryasz. Davis has a knee injury that is expected to sideline him for up to a month, while Haryasz is questionable for this weekend's games after spraining an ankle in practice.
Those two players, along with 6-10 junior center Rob Little and 6-8 junior small forward Josh Childress made up one of the more intimidating frontlines in the Pac-10, but now the Cardinal will perhaps be a bit undersized. It's not a situation Stanford is accustomed too.
Additionally, Childress spent the first third of the season on the sidelines due to a stress reaction in his foot and he's only now rounding into prime form, a fact that makes Stanford's unblemished record all the more impressive.
Little has dramatically improved his physical conditioning, dropping as much as 30 pounds in the off-season, and as a result his stamina and durability are improved, and he appears to have better balance and body control as well.
Stepping in for the injured Davis and Haryasz will be versatile 6-6 junior forward Nick Robinson, a player Stanford coach Mike Montgomery has deemed the "glue" of the club, and 6-9 reserve senior post Joe Kirchofer, a player who has faired relatively well when given floor minutes.
The situation does present Stanford with some legitimate challenges, but the team's offensive balance and floor generalship remains in place with a terrific backcourt tandem. In this game, they may be called upon by Montgomery to do more than their usual share.
6-2 sophomore point guard Chris Hernandez and 6-4 senior shooting guard Matt Lottich have an almost uncanny ability to space the floor and run precise plays that provide the interior players room to operate.
Additionally, Lottich and Hernandez are great shooters with range beyond 20 feet. While Lottich is more of a catch-and-shoot player who is deadly coming off picks and screens, Hernandez is often able to let it rip from the top of the arc at the point of attack.
As a result of his team's strong guard play, Mike Montgomery usually has the ability to run any scheme in his arsenal and expect reasonable success. Against this Cardinal team most opponents can't expect to have any real success when employing a zone -- any zone -- and yet any effort to contain these players in a man-to-man defense is nearly impossible over a full 40 minutes.
While the absence of Davis and Haryasz may prove to be a unique test, Stanford has been able to win in a wide variety of ways and has enjoyed a much greater margin of error due than most teams due to the fact that it seemingly doesn't ever consistently rely on one particular player or one strategic motivation.
And that's something that Arizona State should emulate in terms of its strategic recruitment of players and offensive implementation. Not since the departure of Eddie House has Arizona State been balanced enough to ward against opponents' tendencies to surround Ike Diogu, (and Chad Prewitt before him) with packed in zone and sagging man-to-man defenses.
Jason Braxton has improved in virtually every area, but he's still someone that isn't respect by defenses in the half-court offense and under his direction, the spacing and movement hasn't been where it needs to be to effect success with any consistency.
Arizona State has been itching to find a guard capable of providing a leadership spark at the position, particularly in critical late-game situations and Tron Smith's breakout performance against Washington may allow the Sun Devils some flexibility here. Floor time is critically necessary for Smith, a player who figures to be an integral part of the team's transition plans for next year and beyond.
One particularly troubling issue with this team is the inability of any frontcourt player to step up besides Diogu, with any consistency. Rob Evans has experimented with starting lineups that have included each of Justin Allen, Keith Wooden, Wilfried Fameni and Serge Angounou and yet every one of those players has also at times been on the outside of the entire playing rotation.
This is a real concern, especially in light of the fact that the season is more than half over and things don't seem to be coming to any clear resolution. This is something that must change and must change immediately in order for the Sun Devils to have a real chance at stealing a victory this weekend. And even then, it might not be enough in a game against an undefeated Stanford squad on its home court.
Prediction: Stanford 67 Arizona State 62
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