On Saturday, Arizona State (14-7 overall, 6-4 Pac-10) will try to move one step closer to an NCAA berth on the road against the upstart Washington Huskies (10-12 ; 3-7) a team that nearly beat #2 ranked Arizona in overtime on Thursday. The Huskies are an extremely young squad, led by first-year coach Lorenzo Romar who took over the job at the school where he formerly stood out as a student-athlete several decades ago.
Romar has his squad playing extremely well of late, a true feat considering the overall inexperience of his players and the new system implemented in the off-season. He has started as many as 4 freshmen at times along with one sophomore with several other freshmen play significant roles as well.
The catalyst of the Huskies has been 6'1 sophomore Will Conroy, a leading candidate for most-improved player in the Pac-10. Conroy is a true gym rat and a fresh start under Romar has been remarkably rewarding indeed. A year ago he was sitting on the bench, a non-entity on a horrible team. Now, Conroy is the team's leading scorer at 15 points a game, and assist man as well, where he is among the top 5 statistically in the league. Conroy is a very good three point shooter with a quick flawless stroke and excellent elevation.
Conroy's starting backcourt partner of late has been freshman two sport standout Nate Robinson, a 5'9 sparkplug of a guard who also plays cornerback on the football team. Robinson is a dynamic, explosive athlete, relentless offensively and one of the best players in the league at getting to the basket off of the dribble. While he isn't as good at shooting the ball as Conroy, Robinson has little conscience from the perimeter and will often take the three point shot whenever open.
Only recently has Robinson taken over as a starter for junior Curtis Allen, a 6' combo-guard who spent most of his time under former coach Bob Bender starting at point guard. More suited for the off-guard, Allen has a natural scorer's mentality and is also the leader in three point shot attempts on the team. Conroy, Robinson and Allen lead the Huskies offense in a frenetic ball-pushing agenda that often borders on out of control, and the team is susceptible to committing turnovers and making mental errors along the perimeter or off dribble penetration. A lot of this can be attributed to sheer youth and exuberance, but these players are also fearless, and deadly when in a groove.
Part of the process of becoming a more guard-oriented offense has involved a significant transition for 6'6 junior forward Doug Wrenn, a player widely considered as the best on the team prior to the start of the season. Wrenn has struggled with the transition and adapting to the demanding style of Romar and the two have butted heads at times, with the star forward even finding himself sitting the bench in crucial moments late in games. Nevertheless, Wrenn is a tremendous athlete with fantastic basketball skills and can score with the best players in the league. He's also one of the team's best rebounders, important because of how undersized and inexperience the players are in the frontcourt.
The players that generally start on the frontline alongside Wrenn are freshmen 6'8 Mike Jensen and 6'9 Anthony Washington, but Washington is considered questionable for the game with an ankle sprain that he suffered a week ago and forced him to miss the game on Saturday against Arizona. Jensen is an athletic, skilled player most comfortable facing up his defender and he has a very nice mid-range jumpshot. He's not a particular effective rebounder yet at this level and his defense is still a work in progress as well, particularly against tall athletic players like Tommy Smith, who had 13 points and 16 rebounds in the first meeting between these teams last month in Tempe.
Washington is a player with a great basketball body and a tremendous amount of potential, though right now he's still a little bit raw offensively. He's already a good shot blocker and an above average rebounder. If Washington is unable to go, it's likely that Romar will move Jensen to center at the start and go with yet another freshman, 6'6 Bobby Jones at power forward. Jones is an elite athlete, with a great feel for the game, but is probably better suited as a small forward. He's a shut down on-ball defender, who also can rebound and finish on the break in transition. He plays well within himself and rarely makes mistakes or commits turnovers.
With that smaller starting frontcourt, Romar is likely to call on two other players often in an attempt to combat the presence that Ike Diogu is offensively. 6'9 sophomore Jeff Day will likely come off the bench first for his ability as a shot-blocker and defender. Wide-bodied Marlon Shelton, a 6'9 senior will be a provider of 5 fouls and little more than that against Diogu. He hasn't even played much through most of the year, but that's changed recently with Washington sidelined and will come into play even more against Diogu.
This could be yet another big game for ASU's star player, who has moved into the top 5 in the Pac-10 in both scoring and rebounding with impressive performances over the last three conference games. The Huskies are young and inexperienced up front and defensively they haven't had much experience game-planning to stop a player as capable as Diogu in the post.
If the Huskies pay too much attention to Diogu, Tommy Smith is likely to have a big day against this team in a similar fashion to the first go-around in Tempe, and especially after a confidence builder against WSU. Defensively these two players along with Donnell Knight will attempt to control the glass and keep Washington to one attempt on the basket per offensive possession, if that. With four consecutive performances defensively in which the Devils have held their opponents to 70 points or less the team has moved to first in the Pac-10 at scoring defense.
The team is also first in the conference in field goal percentage, despite shooting poorly from the perimeter all season long. Against Washington State on Thursday however, the Devils shot the ball extremely well from three point range, going 6 of 6 in the first half and 8-11 in the game. Jamal Hill broke out of an offensive slump with 11 points and 3 three pointers and Curtis Millage went 2-2 from deep as well.
The Devils will need to shoot the ball well again on Saturday against a defense that will undoubtedly be designed to stop Diogu and Smith inside. Washington doesn't have much size when closing out so the Devils should get open looks all game long off of good ball rotation and an inside-outside game plan. Defensively the team will need to hustle back in transition with Washington's relentless pushing of the basketball, as well as curtail the mobility of Robinson and Conroy on the perimeter. Stopping those players should help stagnate the Husky offense and give the Devils the upper-hand in what has all the makings of a very good college basketball game in Seattle.
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