Game 19: January 24, 2007
ASU (6-13, 0-8 Pac-10) vs. Arizona (13-5, 4-4 Pac-10)
Arena: McKale Center
Arizona State has lost nine games in a row and is winless in the Pac-10. Arizona has lost three games in a row and is currently in seventh place in the conference. While the Wildcats remain ranked among the Top 20 teams in both the ESPN/USA Today and AP polls, little other praise is being thrown in their direction in recent weeks.
The Wildcats will look to regroup from a difficult week in Los Angeles that saw them play some of their worst basketball of the season. The Wildcats were no match for the Trojans or the Bruins, falling behind by at least 10 points in both losses.
Arizona State experienced a similar fate against both UCLA and USC. The Sun Devils were held to 50 and 49 points, respectively, and shot less than 40 percent from the field for the weekend. Like Arizona, ASU jumped out to an early lead on UCLA only to watch it slip away due to poor shooting and a stifling Bruins defense.
Wednesday night's match up is an opportunity for both teams to break losing streaks against an opponent who is struggling to win games. For ASU, this might be their best chance to steal a victory at McKale maybe ever. For Arizona, playing at home against the last place team in conference might just be what the doctor ordered.
Regardless of the outcome, this should be a hard fought game between two teams desperate for a win. Before I get to the final score, let's take a look at some of the factors that will determine who will win what has now become a key game to close out the first half of Pac-10 play.
Arizona's one time 12-game winning streak is getting farther and farther away and is something the Wildcats can no longer rest their laurels on. The smooth flowing offense that once was is now in disarray. Against UCLA, the Wildcats failed to convert on three straight fast break opportunities in the first 10 minutes of the game. What should've resulted in three dunks or easy lay ups resulted in zero points. Instead of leading 25-18, Arizona could have been up by much more making UCLA's 18-4 run to close out the first half less significant. Due to Arizona's sloppy play UCLA's run was devastating and proved to be the blow that knocked Arizona out of that game. The Wildcats should be applauded for playing hard in the game's final minute to cut into what was a 12 point Bruins lead but just like in the USC loss, Arizona's efforts were too little too late. If Arizona is going to break out of this fun players are going to have to attack the basket. Right now the Wildcats are settling for too many jump shots and it's allowed their opponents to be the aggressors. In the defensive-minded Pac-10, that is a formula for failure which makes Arizona's losing streak not much of a surprise when you take everything into consideration.
Arizona State is a lot like Arizona in that they're not going to get much production from their bench players. Against USC, ASU subs played a total of 31 minutes, scored only two points, had zero assists, and grabbed eight rebounds. The Sun Devils will need a big game from Jeff Pendergraph to keep things close. Herb Sendek has been pleased with the play of freshman guard Derek Glasser who played well in Los Angeles and now boasts a 2.1:1 assist to turnover ratio.
OFFENSIVE EDGE: ARIZONA
Arizona is still averaging over 84 points per game despite being held to 73 against the Trojans and 69 against the Bruins. There is no doubt Arizona is struggling from the field. Where there is doubt is in the reasons why. Are the starters tired from logging so many minutes? How healthy is Jawann McClellan's knee? How healthy is Marcus Williams' wrists? Have some players lost trust in others? Do younger players have faith in the offense? Some of these may be areas of concern. Perhaps none of them are. Sometimes a slump is nothing more than that, a slump. Ask Derek Jeter how a groundball went through his legs after he's fielded a hundred in a row without any mishaps. Ask Larry Bird how he missed a free throw after he had made 47 in a row. Ask Jerome Bettis how he fumbled the ball after he had not fumbled in a game for nearly two years. The answer is they don't know. Perhaps Arizona can't explain why they're missing wide open shots. Oftentimes, in sports, we don't know why we failed until we experience success again. Perhaps Arizona's shots will start to fall against the Sun Devils on Wednesday. If they do, perhaps then Arizona will have some answers as to what's been wrong.
This should be interesting to see what the Wildcats do against ASU. Both UCLA and USC primarily played man against the Sun Devils and were able to hold them to season lows in points. Arizona started the season playing zone, but has played more man defense in the first half of Pac-10 play. ASU did not make a single three pointer in the first half of their game against the Trojans but that's because USC was picking up ASU high in their offensive sets. Arizona has had a bit of an aggression problem of late so I expect Arizona to go man to pick up the tempo. However, ASU does play somewhat of a spread motion offense that is designed to pull defenders far away from the basket. To combat this, Arizona will go to their zone defenses at times to protect their players and to try and bait ASU into some quick shots.
I expect ASU to sit back in their own zone defense to try and force the Wildcats to beat them from long range. Chase Budinger, Williams and McClellan have all struggled from the perimeter of late so it'll be imperative for Arizona to move the ball into the high post to break down the Sun Devils zone. If ASU does go man, they will have difficulties defending the quicker Wildcats. Mustafa Shakur is primed for another good game if ASU goes man. If they go zone, they'll have a greater chance of neutralizing Shakur by prohibiting penetration.
DEFENSIVE EDGE: EVEN
This should be a gimme for Arizona but right now the Wildcats just aren't showing enough heart on the defensive side of the ball to convince me that they'll play any part against the last place Sun Devils. I mean, if Arizona can't get up for UCLA at Pauley how can we expect them to get up for Wednesday's game? The problem with Arizona's defense is that they are allowing their offensive woes to affect their defensive play. This is a no-no and cannot continue. If it does, this will be an extremely long and frustrating season. Arizona would be better served to play a great defensive game against ASU that forces some turnovers and creates some easy buckets. In losses to Wazzu, UCLA and USC, Arizona had to work on every offensive possession just to get off a shot. Rarely did they get out on the break and open up the game. Against ASU, the opportunity to do just this is a golden one.
Arizona continues to be a very good rebounding team. In two losses to the Los Angeles schools, Arizona outrebounded USC (39-32) and UCLA (36-30). The problems with this team are not with their efforts on the boards. The problems lay in their offensive and defensive sets as time and again Arizona's players are simply out of position. On defense, the low post players are playing too high in the zone which is freeing up the baseline for opponents. On offense, it's more a timing issue as players are not cutting hard enough off screens which is allowing defenders to stay with them longer.
The Sun Devils are averaging 34 rebounds per game and are led by Pendergraph (8.9). ASU has a few long forwards that may cause some problems for the Wildcats when they are in their zone defense. However, ASU like Arizona is having timing issues as their players adjust to Sendek's new offense which has left them out of position to really attack the offensive boards. They will due damage on the defensive end as they are a disciplined team who will box out opponents when the shot goes up.
REBOUNDING EDGE: ARIZONA
There's no reason to think that this is a category where the Wildcats could dominate. So much so, that even if their shooting woes continue they may be able to pick up the slack by getting enough easy put backs to help them put points on the board. Williams and Ivan Radenovic have done a great job on the boards all season and I expect them to each have big games. If there are two players to watch in this game, it's Chase Budinger and Shakur. Budinger recently said that he must attack the basket more. A good place for that aggressiveness to start is by rebounding. For Shakur, Arizona must find a way to pick up the pace against the Sun Devils who will surely try and slow things down. Shakur can do this by hitting the defensive glass and then pushing the ball up the floor.
The time is now for Arizona. Their recent losing streak has afforded them few luxuries as they look to close out the first half of Pac-10 play with a win over Arizona State. If they do, they'll finish one game over .500 heading into a huge out of conference showdown with fourth ranked North Carolina on Saturday.
In their search for yet another 20 win season, Arizona has 11 games remaining to get the needed seven wins. Two weeks ago getting to 25 wins seemed like it'd be a walk in the park. Now, that park has turned dark and gloomy and the Wildcats will have to scratch and claw for every inch of ground they wish to claim the rest of the way.
Against ASU, I expect to see a highly motivated Arizona squad. Lute Olson was clearly frustrated with his team's play in Los Angeles. Still, the Wildcats seem upbeat and know that what's been plaguing them is to quote Budinger, "fixable." The Sun Devils are the perfect opponent to get healthy against, but Arizona will have to play well to get the job done. I think they will and for the first time in five games, Wildcats fans should be able to sit back, relax and enjoy the outcome.
ARIZONA 85 ASU 69