The University of Arizona (13-1 overall; 6-0 in conference) has dominated Arizona State University (12-5; 4-2) in men's basketball over the last two decades under head coach Lute Olson, particularly in Tucson where the Wildcats have won 18 of the past 19 games. Certainly this would suggest that the Sun Devils have been dominated by their in-state rival on the road, but in the 4 years that Rob Evans has been at the helm of the Sun Devils the average margin of victory for Arizona has been a mere 8 points, and last year ASU was even leading in the second half before faltering late due in large part to a poor effort from the foul line.
This year, the Devils will travel to Tucson with what Olson has described as "far and away" the best team that Evans has had in his tenure at ASU. It's quite possible however that this is also the best team that Olson himself has had over that span. It's certainly his deepest team of the last 5 years and quite possibly in his entire career as a head coach. The Wildcats feature two returning All-Americans senior starters in 5'10 point guard Jason Gardner and 6'8 forward Luke Walton.
Gardner has had a storied career, coming to Arizona by way of Indianapolis as a McDonald's All-American. He was the freshmen of the year nationally in 1999-2000 and Arizona's first player ever to be named to the all-conference team in his first season. In each of the past two seasons he's been at least an Associate Press honorable mention for the All-American team. Though he has struggled somewhat this season, due in part to the early absence of Walton due to an ankle injury, Gardner is clearly one of the best and most valuable players in the Pac-10. More of a scoring point guard than a distributor, Gardner's shooting percentages from the floor, three point line and the free throw stripe are lower this year than at any other point in his career. Still, Gardner is a scoring threat from just about anywhere on the floor, and his quickness allows him to break down defenders and get into the lane at will. Though he isn't a great defender, Gardner can pick it up when he wants to on that end of the court and he's arguably the most important player on the team as it relates to won-loss percentage.
Walton is the son of former UCLA Bruin and NBA legend Bill Walton. As a point forward who acts as a spark plug for the offense, Walton led the Pac-10 in assists last season; remarkably it was the first time in the history of the conference that a frontcourt player as done so. A cerebral, "throw-back" player terrific in all aspects of the game, Walton is a solid defender and rebounder and also has the ability to score, especially from the middle of the floor on in towards the basket. Once considered a weakness, his three point shooting is dramatically improved and he's looking for that shot more on the court than at any time in his career.
Joining Gardner in the starting backcourt is 6'1 sophomore Salim Stoudamire, the cousin of former Arizona star and current Portland Trail Blazer Damon Stoudamire. Salim, the Pac-10 freshmen of the year last season, is a deadly left-handed shooter with tremendous quickness and versatility. Like Gardner, Stoudamire was also a McDonald's All-American coming out of high school. He's an excellent on-ball defender and also one of the best free throw shooters in the Pac-10.
The guards that will see the most time off the bench are 6'4 freshmen Hassan Adams, another McDonald's All-American and 6'3 freshmen Chris Rodgers. Adams is one of the best pure athletes in the college ranks, and is also arguably the best offensive rebounding guard in the nation already. More of a scorer than a shooter, Adams is at his best in the open court and on the fast break. His perimeter game is still somewhat raw, particularly his shooting, but he makes up for it with his ability to put the ball on the floor and blow by practically anyone at will. Rodgers is already a defensive star who thinks pass first on offense.
The interior players that start alongside Walton are 6'9 senior Rick Anderson and 6'10 sophomore Channing Frye. Anderson is a 5th year multi-talented player whose father played for Lute Olson while he coached at Long Beach State over 2 decades ago. He can shoot the deep ball and also rebound the basketball very well. His mid-range game is somewhat suspect and athletically he's somewhat limited against quick athletic forwards like Tommy Smith. Frye is an Arizona native who showed great promise last year on his way to being named a freshmen all-conference selection. He's a good shot-blocker who converts a very high percentage of his shots from the floor and sticks with what he does best, rarely hurting his team.
Off the bench in the frontcourt, players like 6'9 sophomore Isaiah Fox, 6'8 sophomore Dennis Latimore, and 6'6 Andre Igoudala make up what is arguably the best and deepest interior presence in the league. Fox is a big, bruising power forward who has pushed Frye for playing time in the middle at times throughout the season. He's lost some weight this year and has had much more success as a direct result of his improved conditioning. Fox is good on the glass and defensively does a fine job of bodying opposing post players. Latimore is a player who came out of high school highly acclaimed only to have a somewhat disappointing freshmen campaign. But he seems to be finding his niche here of late and could pose problems on both ends of the floor inside. Igoudala is a defensive star who will spell Walton and even play some minutes at times at the off guard. Like his fellow freshmen Adams, he's a freakishly athletic player with a terrific basketball body and developing skills.
As a team, UA has some amazing individual talent, but they've yet to really find their stride as a team, despite their impressive record; and that's a scary thought especially considering Luke Walton hasn't even been anywhere near 100% for the entire season. They struggled to put away teams like Washington State and USC, the former being just two days before ASU destroyed the Cougars. It seems that the Wildcats have had a difficult time coalescing as a team at times, with Jason Gardner playing a lot of one on one basketball and shooting the ball quite a bit. At times, he's even bogged down the offensive rhythm. It doesn't help matters that players like Adams and Igoudala, though tremendously gifted are still somewhat rudimentary in their understanding of the team concept. Most of their points come off one on one moves, offensive rebounds and fast break opportunities. In a half-court game they are limited, and that's the brand of basketball that ASU is going to have to get them in.
With the relentless wave of fresh players UA is able to throw onto the court, and the full court press being a staple of team, it would be easy for ASU to get carried away into a frenetic, up and down game. This is exactly what happened in the second half of the Oregon game in Eugene and it resulted in a nightmarish finish for the Sun Devils.
ASU must do a much better job than in the last week of inbounding and securing the basketball against the pressure defense that they will likely see against Arizona for a large portion of the game. Donnell Knight and Jamal Hill need to do a much better job of putting the basketball in play or else Evans needs to go in another direction. Careless passes and forced offense, particularly by Jason Braxton resulted in easy opportunities for USC in the game against the Trojans. Arizona is at least an equally athletic team as USC and perhaps even more so.
It will be essential for the Devils to establish Ike Diogu on the block early offensively. The Cats may elect to run either a 3-2 or a matchup type zone with some man-to-man elements. Diogu has to do a better job of recognizing the collapse and kicking the basketball out for the open jump shot. When penetrating, ASU must convert a higher percentage of looks within 5 feet of the basket. Braxton missed 4-5 opportunities by himself against USC.
Defensively, ASU may elect to run some zone and force Arizona to shoot the ball better than they have for the bulk of the season. Stoudamire is the only shooter who is a proven consistent commodity. Gardner has struggled shooting the ball at times and both Adams and Igoudala are no better than 20% from the three point line. The single area of Luke Walton's game that is still suspect is his outside shooting. When the Devils elect to go man, shot selection is even more important. Long caroms will result in fast break opportunities, easy buckets and fan appreciation. It's important to keep the crowd out of the ballgame as much as possible.
When UA sags off of Braxton or other players on the perimeter it's vital that the Devils hit the open perimeter jumpers and keep the Wildcats honest. They are too quick and athletic to be allowed the luxury of closing down the passing angles and penetration option. If the Devils can safely inbounds the basketball, protect against the press, convert on the high field goal percentage opportunities, keep the game at mid-tempo-based pace and keep the Cats honest along the perimeter defensively they have a legitimate chance at shocking the #1 team in the nation.
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