Head Coach: Lon Kruger (1st year)
Assistants: Steve Henson, Lew Hill, Marvin Menzies
G Ricky Morgan 6-0 190 Jr. (3.4 pts, 2.3 asst) – only started 11 of 27 games
G Michael Umeh 6-2 185 So. (9.6 pts, 2.4 rebs, 45.3% FG) – only started 15 of 27 games
G/F Andy Hannan 6-6 210 Sr. (4.2 pts, 2.1 rebs, 46.7% 3-pt) – best 3-pt shooter on the team
F Odartey Blankson 6-7 220 Sr. (17.7 pts, 8.2 rebs, 46.8% FG) – first team All-MWC performer
F Louis Amundson 6-9 230 Jr. (7.8 pts, 7.8 rebs, 41 blks) – good rebounder and shot blocker
G/F Romel Beck 6-7 185 Sr. (13.6 pts, 2.5 rebs, 39.8% 3-pt) – second on team in both points and average minutes; started 17 of 29 games
G Jerel Blassingame 5-10 170 Sr. (8.9 pts, 5.4 asst, 1.1 stls) – started 18 of 29 games; team assist and steal leader
C Joel Anthony 6-9 240 Jr. (1.8 pts, 2.6 rebs, 46 blks) – inside presence off the bench; good shot blocker
G/F Curtis Terry 6-5 200 Fr. (3.8 pts, 1.7 rebs) – only freshman to receive substantial minutes; averages 12.0 minutes off the bench
F Dustin Villepigue 6-9 235 Jr. (3.9 pts, 3.0 rebs, 53.6% FG) – another long front court player off the bench; averages 15.8 minutes
The story line for this first round NIT match up will be Kruger vs. Kruger. This game will feature UNLV head coach Lon Kruger trying to coach his team to victory over his son Kevin Kruger, a Sun Devil shooting guard. The two school had previously agreed not to play in order to keep the father and son from having to compete with each other, but the NIT schedulers apparently didn't keep the duo's desires in mind when setting the first round brackets.
There are many other story lines involved with Thursday night's game, though. The main one in Sun Devil fans' minds is whether the game will be Ike Diogu's last in the maroon and gold. Diogu has commented that he hasn't made a decision on jumping to the NBA and will only address it after the season. If ASU loses to the Runnin' Rebs, "after the season" starts as Ike walks off the floor at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Additionally, the uncertainty about head coach Rob Evans' job status still lingers. Ike went to bat for Evans, stating that it would be hard for the All American to return for his senior year if Evans wasn't the coach. Still, many ASU fans are calling for a change in the leadership of the men's hoops program. To add even more uncertainty into the mix, many are debating whether the departure of A.D. Gene Smith to Ohio State is a good or bad thing for Evans' job security.
And all of that has nothing to do with the issues the Sun Devils are facing on the court. ASU has lost four straight, which includes close losses to Washington (twice), Washington State, and Arizona in that stretch of games. In every game, the Devils kept it close and had a chance to win but came out on the short end of the stick. After starting the year 13-2 but going 5-11 since that fast start, an early-round exit in the NIT is not going to sit well with many ASU hoops fans. It would only reflect a weak non-conference schedule and a poor supporting cast around Diogu in many of the fans' minds.
The Runnin' Rebels are on an opposite trajectory at the end of the season, winning five in a row before losing to New Mexico in the MWC Tournament Championship game. That game also snapped a five game winning streak away from the Thomas & Mack Center for UNLV.
Admittedly, I have not followed the Runnin' Rebels very closely this season. However, a review of their season statistics can provide some information about the Sun Devils' next opponent. First, the Rebels are in the upper half of the conference in most statistical categories. One weakness that jumps out is their proclivity to give up offensive rebounds. UNLV is 8th in their conference in this area, so one would think that ASU will plan to hit the offensive boards hard; however, UNLV also hits the offensive glass (2nd in the conference) so the Devils will have to do a good job blocking out on the defensive end.
Additionally, the statistics that the Rebs do not play solid defense. They are eighth in the Mountain West Conference in scoring defense, giving up 72.1 ppg. Conversely, they are third in scoring averaging right at 73.0 ppg.
Extrapolating from the Rebels' season statistics, a fast tempo game would seem to be their style of choice. This is further backed up by the fact that ten different players average double figure minutes for Lon Kruger's club. It appears that he substitutes a lot to keep his players fresh. It should also be noted that eight of these ten players are juniors or seniors. The Rebels are not an inexperienced team.
Only two players average double figures in scoring for UNLV – All-Conference selections Odartey Blankson and Romel Beck. Recently, Beck has been coming off the bench for Lon Kruger, but he is still averaging the second highest number of minutes on the team (only trailing Blankson). ASU will have to play solid defense on these two players. Unfortunately, they are both long, athletic wings and these types of players have historically given the Devils problems on the defensive end of the floor. However, with no real inside threat down on the blocks, ASU should be able to really focus on guarding the perimeter and help defense, which should help slow down the two talented Rebels.
Offensively, the game will be decided like just about every other game ASU plays. The Sun Devils need to be patient on offense and get the ball to Ike Diogu as much as possible. When the defense pays extra attention to Ike, the Devil perimeter shooters need to hit their shots. If these two things happen, ASU should be in a good position to win the game. If they don't happen, it will be a struggle once again.
Without a lot of height or beef inside, don't be surprised to see the Runnin' Rebels play a lot of zone defense to try to limit Diogu's touches in the paint. They do not have any players that can match up physically with the Pac 10's Player of the Year. They will have to do their best to keep the ball out of his hands. Zone defenses are probably the best method to accomplish this, especially considering that the Devils have not always been patient against zones and have a tendency to settle for long-range bombs.
Sun Devils fans face the same question going into this game – which ASU team is going to show up? Is it the one that showed great heart and desire to take Washington to overtime last weekend? Or is it the one that has seemed to find a way to lose winnable games throughout the conference season?
Honestly, I have no idea which team will show up. The Devils seem to be playing fairly well over the last couple weeks, although they have no wins to show for it. However, UNLV is exactly the type of team that the Devils have not played at high levels against.
So will ASU advance to face South Carolina in the second round of the NIT or will the Runnin' Rebels pull off a 3-0 sweep of Pac 10 schools this season (they already beat Cal and OSU). Your guess is as good as mine.
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