USC Hoops Preview

Fresh off a valuable road sweep in Washington, the Sun Devils looks to avenge last month's last-minute loss to USC at the Sports Arena in a Fox Sports Net televised game on Thursday at 6:30 MST, 5:30 PT. Find out what's changed about these two teams over the past month in this preview.

Arizona State (15-7 overall; 7-4 Pac-10) lost to the USC Trojans (10-9; 5-5) in a close, hard-fought game on January 18th by a score of 76-74, when Curtis Millage's potential game-winning three point shot caromed off the rim as time expired in regulation. USC has won 5 games in a row against ASU, and 9 of the last 10. With a young and talented squad, the Trojans will be a force to be reckoned with over at least the next few years in the Pac-10 as the Sun Devils jostle for position in the conference.

A USC win would move the team to 6-5 and dangerously close to the Sun Devils in the Pac-10 race, while a Sun Devil win would propel the team to 8-4, the best record in conference since the team went to the sweet 16 in 1995, also the last time ASU made the NCAA tournament. While these are the same two teams that faced off less than a month ago, a lot has changed for both squads.

The Trojans are riding high on a three game win streak that has included dominating performances over Oregon and UNLV and a one point victory over rival UCLA. The emergence of sophomore 6'3 point guard, Derrick Craven has been one of the real keys to the recent success of the team. Though he isn't a traditional point guard, over the last two games in particular Craven has done a fine job of leading the frenetic, fast-break attack of the Trojans, and appears much more comfortable on the court than earlier in the season. Derrick is creating off the dribble for himself and his teammates, and shooting the ball with confidence out to the three-point line. He's also recently made smarter decisions with the ball, turning it over less often, and doing a better job of defending without committing careless fouls.

Another player who has recently emerged, albeit due in part to the injury of teammate Nick Curtis, has been two-sport star Gregg Gunther, a 6'8 sophomore power forward who plays tight end for the football team. Gunther has great hands, a soft touch from mid-range and he's not afraid to mix it up defensively and on the glass against the mediocre frontcourt talent that is so pervasive in the Pac-10. Against Oregon, Gunther had 16 points and 6 rebounds in 30 minutes of action. Curtis, a 6'8 sophomore forward has been severely limited due to a troublesome heel injury that kept him out of Sunday's game against UNLV. He is questionable for the game on Thursday and even if he does play, it will likely be on a limited basis. While Gunther is a strong replacement, he's less versatile and talented than Curtis, who leads the team in rebounding with 7 per game, and is a better scorer as well.

On the subject of versatile and talented, a terrific segue can be made to the two unquestionable stars of the Trojans, 6'4 junior swingman Desmon Farmer and 6'3 sophomore guard Errick Craven. These players can do it all; shoot, score, penetrate, rebound and defend though both have a tendency to run hot and cold, especially Farmer, who thrives on being emotional and wearing his heart on his sleeve. Remarkably, this duo has combined for just less than 50% of the team's scoring average in Pac-10 play with 37.9 points per game. Against ASU last month the players combined for 38 of the team's 76 points. Additionally these are two of the best rebounding wings in the Pac-10, combining for more than 10 rebounds per game. As if all of that isn't enough, Errick Craven is perhaps the best pickpocket in the league, averaging 3 steals per game in conference play.

The starting center for USC is 6'11 sophomore Rory O'Neil, a long, lanky player who likes to face up and shoot the basketball. O'Neil has great range out to the three point line and is also one of the best players in the conference at shooting the ball off the glass. He's slowly becoming more comfortable in the post and has developed a nice one-handed turnaround jumper as his signature move. Defensively, O'Neil is still not as far along as he should be. He can be fairly timid at times and gets moved of the block relatively easy by stronger, more assertive players. Ike Diogu has 24 points against USC last month and though the Trojans are certainly going to key on stopping him, getting the ball to Diogu in good position against O'Neil will be crucial.

A strong player off the bench for the Trojans, especially of late, is Roydell Smiley, a 6'4 junior who transferred in this year from the junior college ranks and is a legitimate candidate for the non-freshman newcomer of the year award in the Pac-10. Smiley has a nice-looking stroke out to 20 feet and is a better shooter than his 35% from three-point range would indicate. He's very similar to Farmer, though less visibly emotional on the court and a little smoother.

The lone backup point guard available for the Trojans, 6'1 Robert Hutchinson is also the only senior on the roster that is consistently in the rotation and among the top 10 players on the squad. Earlier in the season the point guard position was filled by a committee of Derrick Craven, Hutchinson and Brandon Brooks, but Brooks was lost for the year with a severe ankle injury. Now, it appears that very recently Craven has become a full-fledged starter and Hutchinson his backup. More of a traditional point guard, Hutchinson does a good job of protecting and distributing the basketball, but he's less of a threat in the break-neck pace favored by Coach Henry Bibby and the team's stars, Farmer and Errick Craven.

Against a team with a legitimate inside threat like Diogu, a strong roster of reserves in the frontcourt is often a huge factor. This is an area that USC has struggled with and is of particular concern with the tenuous situation of Curtis. 6'7 junior Jerry Dupree has had a difficult year and a half career at USC and this season he was ineligible for the first portion of the season due to academics. When he shows up to play, Dupree can be a force defensively with his long arms and quick leaping ability, but more often than not this season he's been a non-factor. Other players that might see floor time in an effort to contain Diogu include 6'11 senior Kostas Charissis, a low-post banger and 7' junior Jonathan Oliver, a thin athletic player who likes to face up and play away from the basket.

The Trojans will use a lot of different looks defensively against ASU. In the previous meeting Bibby's team played a lot of match up zone with some man-to-man elements. USC should alternate between that, a straight zone and man-to-man in an effort to confuse and frustrate Diogu and the Devils. The Trojans are probably the best in the Pac-10 at switching up defensive sets on the fly and the team uses audibles learned and developed in the off-season with help of coaches from the Denver Broncos. It's important to note however, that regardless of the look shown by the Trojans, the team will pack the middle of the floor, put as many hands and bodies in between the ball and Diogu as possible and prevent the star freshman from getting touches.

It's likely the Trojans will defend Diogu with a number of players, but Gunther most likely will be the centerpiece of the attack. The focus on the star center should allow either Tommy Smith or Shaun Redhage to have a big game for the Sun Devils. Smith has always been more talented athletically and is superior in an open-court game, but Redhage does a better job of finding the soft spots in zones, understanding where defenses are susceptible to attack and systematically breaking down defenses. He's also coming off the best game of his career against Washington, a game that saw Redhage almost single-handedly tear apart the Huskies 2-3 zone.

On the perimeter, ASU will likely get numerous open looks at the basket for players like Curtis Millage, Jamal Hill and even Kenny Crandall. The more USC keys in on Diogu, the more these players will be counted on to knock down open shots and create opportunities for teammates. When these players shoot the ball well, such as they did at Washington State, the Sun Devils are a very difficult to beat, especially at home. But when these players struggle from the floor the way they did for most of the game at USC and more recently at home against Stanford, it can be a long and frustrating game.

Point guard will be an especially important position to watch in this game. Jason Braxton's athletic ability makes him a more valuable defender of Derrick Craven than Kyle Dodd, but on the other end of the court the Trojans completely sag off Braxton and use his defender to double down on Diogu and harm the continuity of the Sun Devil offense. Braxton often forces the issue and gets frustrated against defenses like this, and it presents a Catch-22 situation for ASU. Do the Devils go with Braxton's defense, or Dodd ability to run the half-court offense?

On offense the Trojans will look to run early and often and get the Cravens and Farmer immersed in an open court game. A high scoring game dramatically favors the Trojans. ASU has held Pac-10 opponents to the lowest scoring average in the conference. The Sun Devils must take advantage of offensive opportunities created by turnovers, but choose the slow the game down when not presented with a clear advantage on the fast break. The more this game deteriorates into a playground atmosphere, the less of a chance the Devils have to win. ASU must also hold Errick Craven and Des Farmer to far less than half of their team's point total and keep them off the offensive glass. If the Devils can limit these two players, establish Diogu early and hit some key open shots, a much-needed home victory is well within reach.

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