Down six points to UCLA with less than 35 seconds remaining in the second half, Arizona State dramatically hit two key three point shots to force overtime. In the extra period the Sun Devils dominated the Bruins at both ends of the court, and more importantly played with a level of passion and intensity previously unseen this season.
Better late than never.
It's been a difficult to season to say the least, and the Sun Devils still reside at the bottom of the Pac-10 basement following Thursday's win, but there is still a reasonable belief within the program that a conference tournament berth (top 8 teams) is attainable.
Rob Evans said this weekend's home stand was essentially a must-sweep situation and his team is now halfway there following the victory over UCLA.
Now, Arizona State will take on USC in an effort to sweep the season series with the Trojans. In Los Angeles last month, the Sun Devils had one of the better shooting performances of the season en route to their only 100-point effort of the season.
Henry Bibby's club was expected to be among those fighting to displace Stanford and Arizona this year from their seeming perennial perch atop the Pac-10. Instead, the Trojans have struggled mightily and are among four or five teams still fighting to avoid missing the conference tournament.
The Trojans have been unable to establish a real identity thus far. Desmon Farmer is among the best players in the league, but much like Arizona State with Ike Diogu, that simply has not translated into much success in the win column. Indeed, since a victory over Arizona on January 15, the Trojans have lost six of seven games.
Ranked last in the Pac-10 in points allowed per contest, field goal percentage defense, three point field goal defense, and scoring margin, it is clear that USC has had an impossible time of stopping opposing teams from scoring.
Generally speaking, Trojans games often de-evolve into up and down contests with a great deal of one-on-one play and very little defense. They play an ugly brand of basketball without a true point guard or any sense of continuity.
Part of the problem is the frenetic, highly individualized style of play the Craven twins, Errick and Derrick, and the Stewart twins, Lodrick and Rodrick epitomize and actually force upon (since the are the primary ball-handlers) their teammates.
USC actually has a several talented frontcourt weapons, most notably low post presence Jeff McMillan, a junior college transfer who is capable of scoring in bunches and at a high percentage. Unfortunately he doesn't get enough touches when he is playing well and at times it appears that he loses focus as a result.
As he is often prone to do, Bibby has shuffled around his frontcourt rotation quite a bit of late. On any given night it's difficult to know which of Rory O'Neil, Nick Curtis, Jonathan Oliver or Gregg Guenther Jr. will play heavy minutes. Usually Bibby plays two of those four and the other two sit.
He doesn't like the fact that O'Neil plays somewhat soft and isn't a strong defender or rebounder. Curtis has been injury prone over his career and it's difficult to know how he'll feel on any given night. Oliver has gained a substantial amount of weight since last season and he's improved, but much of his enormous potential is still relatively untapped and it doesn't seem as though he consistently works hard. Guenther is a tough-nosed two-sport athlete who plays tight end on the football team. He works hard at both ends and is relatively skilled.
In the past, the Trojans have shown Arizona State a variety of different defensive looks and have relied on trying to keep the team off balance and unable to establish any rhythm. Expect that to be the strategy in this contest as well.
The Sun Devils hope to counter with a little bit of confidence and a better sense of what they're trying to accomplish on the offensive end. UCLA played mostly man-to-man in Thursday's game and Arizona State was able to run its motion offense with better movement and spacing. The team looked more fluid and the younger players on the roster, most notably Wilfried Fameni and Kevin Kruger, appeared to be thinking less and playing more instinctively.
Evans counted heavily on seniors Justin Allen and Jamal Hill in the game against the Bruins and that should continue to be the case moving forward as Arizona State attempts to secure a conference tournament berth. If those players can continue to give the team a boost and the Sun Devils can hit shots from the outside, it should force USC to open up its defense and create high percentage scoring chances for Ike Diogu. Consequently, that could create significant problems for a team that gives up more points than any other in the Pac-10.
Prediction: Arizona State 82 USC 76
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