Oregon Hoops Preview

With an NCAA Tournament berth relatively assured, the Sun Devils travel to Los Angeles' Staples Center for a rubber match with the Oregon Ducks, a team desperately fighting for a dance card of its own. The game will be held Thursday at approximately 3:50 local time, 4:50 MT time and will be carried nationally on Fox Sports Network.

Last week was arguably the biggest in at least eight years for Arizona State men's basketball. A home series sweep of the Oregon school gave the team sole possession of 4th place in the final regular season conference standings and all but assured the Devils of a place in the NCAA Tournament field of 65, to be announced on Sunday.

With a relaxed and focused attitude, ASU heads to Los Angeles with a strong belief that it can make a serious run at the Pac-10 Tournament Championship. Playing as the home team in the opening round the Sun Devils will take on an Oregon squad facing far more uncertainty as it relates to post-season play. The Ducks are squarely on the proverbial bubble after being swept in Arizona, and seeing their RPI rating fall above 50.

Making matter worse in recent days, mid-major teams, Wisconsin-Milwaukee and San Diego pulled off upsets in their respective conference tournaments, leaving Butler and Gonzaga counting on at-large bids in order to get into the dance, thus further cluttering the bubble picture.

With this in mind, the Ducks will undoubtedly come into the game on Thursday with a must-win attitude. When focused and prepared, Oregon is among the most dangerous teams in the nation. Extremely explosive on offense, Ernie Kent's squad is capable of going on tremendous double-digit runs and taking a close game and ending it in a matter of minutes. The team is among the leaders in NCAA scoring average per game.

Luke Ridnour, recently named Pac-10 Player of the Year, is the key element in this attack for the Ducks. He's been exceptional in both games against the Sun Devils this year, particularly in the second half of the game in Eugene and the first half of the game in Tempe. Ridnour is extremely swift and fluid on the court, with excellent ball skills and an ultra-quick release of a jump shot that is deadly from almost anywhere on the court.

The most dangerous element of Ridnour's game however is his ability to create easy opportunities for his teammates, and it's the reason he leads the conference in assists. In transition, teammates James Davis, Andre Joseph and Luke Jackson do a great job of spotting up for the catch and shoot three point look, or filling a lane on the way to the basket. ASU did a fabulous job of containing these wings in the game in Tempe and that more than anything is what allowed the Sun Devils to come out with a hard fought victory.

Another area in which the Devils had remarkable success in the game last Thursday was in preventing interior scoring opportunities for the big men of the Ducks. When the 5 interior players on the Oregon team combine for more than 22 points, the team is undefeated on the season. When these frontcourt 5 don't hit at least 20 points combined, the team is winless. It is a benchmark figure to watch closely in this game. For Arizona State, there has been a marked improvement in the team's play since Rob Evans decided to shake up his starting lineup for the first time and only time all season following a disappointing performance two weeks ago at Stanford. In the following game against Cal, Evans went with Kyle Dodd at the point guard spot instead of Jason Braxton and Shaun Redhage at the small forward position instead of Donnell Knight.

Despite the fact that ASU lost the game at Cal, the team played much better, with a more balanced scoring attack and a consistency on defense that elevated the team's play. Evans stuck with the new starting lineup last week in the games against Oregon and it resulted in two of the better performances in the past month, particularly on offense.

The move has not come without cost however, as for the first time all season, against Oregon State on Saturday, the Sun Devils benched failed to account for a single point. The bench has also become very short in recent weeks, as Evans has reduced the number of players that see game action to about 8. Braxton, Knight and Jamal Hill are the only players still getting regular playing time off the bench, and even their minutes have been significantly reduced.

Certainly if there was an issue of concern heading into post-season play this would be it. Jamal Hill was expected to contribute as an athletic shooter off the bench but he's had a difficult time adjusting, particularly on defensive. Lately, his contributions have actually diminished. Quick players have been able to get past Hill off the dribble and taller more physical small forward have used their advantage in shooting over Hill and on the glass.

Jason Braxton has been sporadic at best in backing up Dodd. He's struggled with his on-ball defense and that's particularly curious considering his size and level of athleticism. Braxton also has been less effective than Dodd at running the half court offense. He's hesitant to take the open 14-18 foot jump and his ability to break down defenses is compromised in the half court offense by teams' unwillingness to closely guard him.

While getting a third opportunity to play Arizona in the second round of the Pac-10 Tournament is something that might be appealing, Evans and his staff will have to balance that against trying to get valuable court time for the reserves heading into the NCAA's. It's a difficult task and winning will undoubtedly of the greatest priority.

The Devils also must be cognizant of the fact that a win against Oregon helps with their seeding in the NCAA Tournament. A win against the Ducks followed by an upset victory over an Arizona team, should the Wildcats beat UCLA, would likely result in a seeding as high as 7, important because it would remove the Devils from a potential second round match-up with a number 1 seed in the Big Dance. ASU still has much to play for.

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