With exactly a month remaining until the Pac-10 Tournament begins in Los Angeles, Arizona State now enters the home stretch of a season that has stretched thin the patience of even its most loyal supporters.
Following a 20-win season, which included a win in a NCAA Tournament game for the first time since 1995, the Sun Devils are on the verge of missing their own conference tournament for the first time since it was reinstituted in 2001-02.
Currently sitting in last place with a 2-9 record, it figures that Arizona State will need to play better than .500% basketball in order to finish eight or better and qualify for an appearance at Staples Center next month. Anything fewer than four wins from here out probably won't do it.
Figuring a 4-3 finish would be enough (it would push ASU to 6-12), and factoring in likely losses on the road versus Oregon next week and at Arizona to close out the regular season, the Sun Devils would seemingly have to win their remaining four games.
And so this weekend's hosting of the Los Angeles schools essentially becomes a must-sweep situation.
UCLA comes into the contest having just stemmed a five-game conference losing streak with a victory over Washington on Saturday. Prior to that, the Bruins began coach Ben Howland's first season in the Pac-10 by impressively reeling off five straight wins.
Upon his arrival, Howland had a fairly solid nucleus of talented players returning in T.J. Cummings, Dijon Thompson, and Cedric Bozeman, and freshman Trevor Ariza has been a fantastic addition. However, former coach Steve Lavin didn't leave him with much legitimate depth to work with.
Additionally, it isn't necessarily a group of players that fits Howland's desired style of play from a philosophical perspective. The new UCLA coach favors strong point guard play, a plethora of shooters and big, strong-bodied interior players willing to mix it up underneath and on the glass.
Bozeman is player without a true position. He's always been terrific at slashing to the basket, and his ball skills and ability to see the floor have improved, but he isn't a good shooter and he'll never be a true point guard. Cummings is a scorer, but until recently he's never really shown a willingness to work hard at rebounding the ball or defending. Thompson and Ariza are versatile, athletic, and skilled; they fit nicely.
Brian Morrison might also be a good fit and Howland has been intrigued by him. Nevertheless, he was sidelined by a leg injury for a number of weeks and recently upon his return Morrison twisted an ankle. He is currently questionable for this weekend's games.
UCLA's two true post players, Ryan Hollins and Mike Fey, have had some sporadic success but neither has been consistently impressive. Fey was the original starter because he was more of a true back-to-the-basket type of center, but his early production trailed off to the point where he became only a fringe member of Howland's player rotation. Hollins is an athletic freak and a hard worker, but he's not particularly strong physically or fundamentally sound in the low post.
Consequently, Howland has done a fair amount of tinkering with lineups and various rotations. He has relied heavily on walk-on Janou Rubin in the backcourt, mostly at off-guard, and in the win over Washington, back-up point guard Ryan Walcott played quite a bit as well.
In the frontcourt, Josiah Johnson has played quite a few minutes. He's someone who is not particularly athletic, but works hard in the paint on both ends. He can score a bit with some nice moves around the basket or via a solid face-up mid-range jumper.
All things considered it is a rotation that, while still in a state of flux, is dramatically more stable than the one at Arizona State. Rob Evans has shaken up his starting lineup and player rotation in virtually every game over the last month.
The frontcourt rotation has been impossible to figure. Keith Wooden has alternately gone from not playing much at all to starting and playing extensively. Then, more recently he's been starting and yet not playing much at all. Wilfried Fameni was a starter at one point early in the season only to fall out of favor and drop out of Evans' rotation. Last week he played considerable minutes in the games versus Cal and Stanford and now it appears that he'll start against UCLA. Serge Angounou came back from a knee injury to play heavy minutes immediately, but now he is hardly seeing the floor at all.
In the backcourt, Evans experimented with shelving Jason Braxton at point guard in favor of Tron Smith in the recent Stanford game. It was a move that failed miserably, although in the following game against Cal, Braxton and back-up point guard Kevin Kruger played quite well on the court simultaneously. Jamal Hill has transformed himself from one of the Sun Devils' most volatile players to one of their most consistent offensive threats. Meanwhile, Steve Moore has been mired in a devastating shooting slump that has proved quite costly.
Looking at all of these things on the whole makes for an unbelievably convoluted picture. Essentially, the only thing that is clear is that Ike Diogu is going to play a full 40 minutes or close to it on Thursday and in every game where he's free of foul trouble. Beyond that however, it's impossible to know or predict how this contest will play out.
And with that said here's out utterly unreliable prediction for this, a virtual must-win game for Arizona State as it relates to its conference tournament aspirations.
Prediction: UCLA 74 Arizona State 72
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