Oregon Preview

This weekend will see six Arizona State men's basketball players participate their final home-stand with more at stake than at any other point in time over the course of their careers as Sun Devils, including, most-notably, a potential NCAA tournament at-large bid. First up will be the Oregon Ducks on Thursday night at 8:30 on Fox Sports Network.

It has been the subject of massive speculation over the course of the last month. What will Arizona State (17-10; 9-7) need to accomplish in order to receive the first NCAA tournament bid of the Rob Evan era? There is only one thing that is a certainty; Arizona State must win again, and perhaps twice before next Sunday in order to make the field of 65.

One more win might be enough, but certainly ASU would still be considered a "bubble team" in such a scenario and thus, with that in mind the Sun Devils must approach Thursday night's contest with the Oregon Ducks (21-7, 9-7) as a must-win game. A must-remove-all-doubt opportunity might actually be a more accurate description.

A win over the Ducks followed up by a Senior Day victory against Oregon State would remove and any and all doubt and the Devils would dance again, for the first time since 1995. It would also remove any pressure on the team to win at least one game in the Pac-10 tournament beginning next week at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

It certainly won't be an easy task. Oregon blew out the Sun Devils in the second half of a game these teams played in Eugene earlier this year after a very close first half. The visiting Ducks have been playing well of late, beating UCLA by about 30 points and sweeping a home series against the Los Angeles-area schools.

Conversely, ASU has lost its last three games against the top 3 teams in the Pac-10 and in the process, witnessed a shakeup in the starting line-up for the first time all season. Seniors Shaun Redhage and Kyle Dodd replaced Donnell Knight and Jason Braxton on Saturday against Cal after a poor effort against Stanford in which the two played ineffectively.

Rob Evans shortened his bench in the game against Cal, and Knight went from starting a game earlier in Palo Alto, to not even playing against the Golden Bears. Braxton only saw limited action, as did Jamal Hill. Ostensibly, the rotation was cut to a mere seven players with Ike Diogu, Tommy Smith and Shaun Redhage playing almost all of the frontcourt minutes and Kyle Dodd and Curtis Millage doing the same in the backcourt.

It's unknown if Evans wishes to implement a similar strategy against the Ducks, but if he does; it will take a supreme effort for the starters to physically summon the energy to play in the up and down court game favored by the opponent. In all actuality, a shortened bench will make even more important the singular key of the game, and that is preventing Oregon from scoring on the run and in transition.

Luke Ridnour, a top 3 candidate for Player of the Year honors in the conference will lead the Ducks from the point guard position in an effort to dictate the tempo of the game. Ridnour, a 6'2 junior only knows one speed, and that's all-out all the time. He's the rare player who can shoot the ball outside of the flow of the offense and it's actually a good thing. When he is playing at his best, there is no bad shot on the floor for Ridnour. He'll come down one on three in transition and fire up a long three-pointer. He'll drive when it looks as though there's no opening and he'll impose his will on his opponent.

Oregon is a three point shooting team that takes the deep shot at any time and from anywhere on the floor. Ridnour has two gunners as wingman in 5'10 junior starter James Davis and 6'3 reserve Andre Joseph. These two players split time almost evenly at the off-guard position and both are long-range specialists that are known for little more than their shooting ability. Both of these players take more than 50% of their field goal attempts from behind the three-point line. Joseph was just recently named the top non-freshmen newcomer in the conference.

Ridnour's primary offensive sidekick however is neither Davis nor Joseph but rather, fellow junior, 6'7 Luke Jackson a player who is also a very strong candidate for all-conference post-season honors. Jackson plays well in transition and has a versatile array of offensive skills that make him particularly effective when combined with Ridnour. He shoots the ball well from long range, is a good passer and can rebound the basketball well from the wing position.

The main positions of concern for the Ducks this season have been at power forward and center. Head coach Ernie Kent has used five players extensively and in different combinations and rotations in order to find the best productivity, but nothing has worked extremely well and this is the portion of the team that has kept the team from a predicted top two finish in the Pac-10.

Robert Johnson, a 6'9 senior has been the lone mainstay at the 4 position. He's long and fundamentally sound on both ends of the court. He can finish around the glass and is probably the best rebounder on the team but he isn't a threat to score away from the basket and defensively, he's just average.

The player who has consistently started at the 5 position has been wide-bodied 6'9 senior Brian Helquist. He's not afraid to mix it up a bit underneath but he's limited athletically and in terms of any offensive repertoire. The position has largely been one run by committee with 6'11 freshman Ian Crosswhite, 6'9 junior Jay Anderson and 7' freshman Matt Short all seeing almost as much playing time on average.

Offensively, the best player of the group is clearly Crosswhite. He possesses a nice face up game and can shoot the ball out to the three-point line. Defensively he's been very mediocre however and there are reports that his attitude has been questionable at times. Anderson and Short often battle for the last frontcourt spot in the rotation, but on most nights, at least one plays significant minutes.

It will be essential for ASU to contain the players surrounding Ridnour more than the team's best player himself. As the catalyst for the offense, Ridnour is best when involving teammates in the frenetic-paced games the Ducks favor. The Devils have been particularly average at picking up shooters in transition and this is the most important area to watch in the game on Thursday.

Ridnour is going to get his usual 25 points give or take, but if he is also allowed to have 10 or more assists it will be deadly for ASU. This is a player that has a tendency to try and force the issue and even when things aren't going well he'll keep playing the only way he knows how. If ASU can contain the shooters, Davis and Joseph in transition, as well as Jackson the Sun Devils stand a good change at coming out on top. A win against the Ducks would set up a senior day contest against the Oregon State Beavers and an opportunity to remove all doubt about an NCAA tournament bid.

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