Cal (19-6; 12-4) will honor seniors Joe Shipp, Brian Wethers and Donte Smith before their final game at Haas Pavilion and the Golden Bears will look to close out the home schedule with an important win against ASU (17-9; 9-6) that would assure the Bears of at least a third place finish in the Pac-10 final standings. Conversely, a Sun Devil victory would keep alive hopes of a tie for third, possible only if the team also gets a home sweep against Oregon next week coupled with a Cal loss to Stanford.
Another reason this game is so important is the fact that Oregon holds the tiebreaker against the Sun Devils in the event that both teams finish with the same record. That tiebreaker is determined by which team has beaten the best Pac-10 opponent and the Ducks defeated Stanford. Such a tie would slot ASU in the 5th spot in the Pac-10, important with respect to seeding by the NCAA selection committee. ASU can finish no worse than 5th in conference play.
In the aftermath of a decisive loss to Stanford on Thursday, Rob Evans has decided to make the most significant changes in the starting lineup all season. Kyle Dodd will start at the point guard position ahead of Jason Braxton and Donnell Knight will be benched in favor of Jamal Hill. While the play of Braxton and Knight have made their removal from the starting lineup reasonable, the decision might have also been easier for Evans considering the match-ups against Cal.
The Golden Bears starting point guard, 6'1 freshman Richard Midgley, is not a particularly big or athletic player and that bodes favorably for a switch to Dodd. He is, however, a steady offensive threat with the ball in his hands, and an able shooter, capable of easily knocking down the jumper out to the three point line when left unattended.
Defensively, Midgley is somewhat limited with regard to lateral mobility and that's something Dodd and Braxton should be able to take advantage of. It will be very important for the Devils to get middle penetration off the dribble against the Bears and the inability to do so is something that really hurt the continuity of the offense in losses to Stanford and Arizona.
Donnell Knight is a player that is needed defensively against taller, rangier small forwards, but Cal's starting wings, 6'5 Joe Shipp and 6'5 Brian Wethers, are more physical than rangy, and do not present a dramatic height disadvantage for Knight's replacement, Jamal Hill. Still, both Shipp and Wethers are very active weapons on offense and are adept at creating for themselves off the dribble and even posting up. Shipp is a solid three point shooter as well, while Wethers is capable, but not an imposing threat from the perimeter.
Defending Shipp or Wethers will be a real task for Hill, who has shown a propensity to get very lazy on defense, and not move his feet well enough. Perhaps the biggest disadvantage will be the player assigned to the man not guarded by Hill or Knight. If ASU elects to play Millage on Shipp for instance, there will be a dramatic size advantage for the Bears.
Perhaps most concerning about all of this for ASU is the fact that Cal chose to run its offense through yet another player in the first game these teams playing against each other this year, in Tempe. Ben Braun had his troops relentlessly pound the basketball inside to 6'11 sophomore Amit Tamir in the mid-post area, and even a bit further out onto the floor. From this position, the Bears would run a series of screens and back-cuts and if nothing opened up the team would clear out and allow Tamir to isolate his defender, usually Tommy Smith.
While Tamir isn't a strong threat in the post, he is a terrific passer for a big man, as evidenced by his 3+ assists per game, 10th in the Pac-10. When isolated, Tamir can face up and knock down the jump-shot from anywhere on the court. Tamir may even be able to get Tommy Smith in foul trouble this way, especially in light of Smith's recent mental breakdowns on the defensive end.
Thankfully for the Sun Devils, the offensive weaponry really ends with those four aforementioned players. Midgley, Shipp, Wethers and Tamir remarkably combine for more than 75% of Cal's offensive output on the season. No other Cal player averages more than 3 points per contest on the season.
The 5th starter for Cal is 6'11 junior Gabe Hughes, but the center position is really played by committee. Hughes only averages 13 minutes a game. Often, the Golden Bears bring in 6'6 junior Conner Famulener to play in the post alongside Tamir. Famulener is more versatile and dependable than Hughes and can play any position along the frontline. Even 6'8 freshman David Paris has seen some time in the post of late, though it's certainly possible that he might not even play in the game on Sunday.
For the most part Braun only plays a 7 or 8 man rotation. The lone player that garners significant minutes off the bench in the backcourt is 5'9 junior A.J Diggs, a defensive specialist. Often Diggs will come in and run the point for Midgley, but when Shipp take a rare breather, Midgley usually stays on the floor and plays at the off-guard spot.
Unlike some recent games in which the Sun Devils almost exclusively saw zone half-court defenses designed to stop Ike Diogu, the Bears played a lot of switching man-to-man against the team in Tempe. Still, the team clogs the interior in an effort to contain Diogu and in doing so will often allow open looks along the perimeter. Knocking down these shots will be necessary in order to open up the floor for Diogu in the post.
It will also be important for the Devils to do a better job in transition defense and also on the defensive glass. Recently ASU has struggled to get back in transition and prevent quick wide open shots. It seems that in up-tempo games, the Sun Devils are fine running the break and getting some easy looks at the basket, but this is meaningless if the team gives up equally as many, or even more points because of a failure to get back quickly and clamp down defensively. Second shot opportunities must be prevented at all costs against a team like Cal, because the Bears are so good at getting quality opportunities. This was the single biggest factor in consecutive losses to Arizona and Stanford.
Hopefully the benching of Knight and Braxton will motivate some of the key players who've been giving less than maximum effort to step up their level of play. Haas Pavilion has proven to be one of the toughest arenas to play in over the last several years in the Pac-10 and Cal is an extremely tough opponent with Joe Shipp being the leading candidate for Player of the Year honors in the Pac-10.
Devils take on the Golden Bears at Haas Pavilion
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