Game 27: February 25, 2007
ASU (7-19, 1-14 Pac-10) vs. Arizona (17-9, 8-7 Pac-10)
Arena: Wells Fargo Arena
Arizona's roller coaster ride of a conference season hit a low point last weekend. The Wildcats lost to both USC and UCLA at the McKale Center, giving each of the Los Angeles schools season sweeps. Conversely, Arizona State played the Trojans and Bruins much more competitively, pulling off the upset of USC and giving UCLA all they could handle in a six-point loss.
Despite their 1-14 conference record, ASU's last five losses have been by a combined 14 points. During that stretch, they lost to Washington State by one, Oregon by four and UCLA by six. That's nothing to be ashamed of.
Arizona and ASU each will have had an eight day layoff by the time they tip Sunday night in Tempe. For Arizona, the rest is much needed as injuries have plagued this team since mid-January. For ASU, the extended rest probably could not have come at a worse time. Sure, the extra practice sessions will allow them to prepare more and the time away will give them more opportunity to feel good about themselves after the USC upset, but no team wants to take a break when they're winning.
How will the long rest affect each team? Will ASU's zone defense stifle Arizona's perimeter shooters? Will Arizona be as patient against the zone as they were in the teams' first match up? Which players are primed for big games?
Please read on to find out.
FIRST GAME RECAP
Jordan Hill started in place of the suspended Marcus Williams (undisclosed team rule violation) and came up one rebound shy of a double-double. Hill, along with freshman frontcourt mate Chase Budinger (21 points, 10 rebounds) led the Wildcats to a 24-point victory that saw Arizona runaway from the Sun Devils in the game's final 25 minutes. ASU would tie the score at 20, but then gave way as the Wildcats outscored the Sun Devils 17-6 down the stretch to take a nine point lead into the locker room. The first go around featured only 18 total turnovers (nine for each team). During the game, Mohamed Tangara was struck in the face and was taken to a local hospital. He's been sidelined since.
Arizona's much maligned defense has stolen the spotlight this season and has served to overshadow their other weakness – a spotty offense. Despite averaging 80 points per game and shooting 48.6 percent from the floor, Arizona has at times looked anemic on offense against good defensive teams. For every 20 plus point outburst from a Wildcat, there's been an equally bad game where a player might make only 1 of 10 shots and have little other impact. The statistics suggest otherwise, with five players averaging double figures in scoring, but no one player has risen above the rest as the team's go-to-guy in the clutch. One game it's Budinger, the next it's Williams, Radenovic or Shakur. Arizona needs someone to step up and get hot down the stretch. They need someone (as Radenovic did against Oregon) who demands the ball late in the game. Williams and Budinger are the most likely candidates, but a sleeper could and possibly should be Shakur. Shakur is capable of creating his own shot and can get to the basket better than any other Wildcat. He's struggled in recent games, but the entire team has struggled. Few players are moving well without the ball and that puts a ton of pressure on the ball handler. If Shakur can play with confidence and his teammates can work tirelessly to cut and screen to create space, then Arizona can quickly turn things around.
Arizona State is not going to beat any team with their offense. It's just not going to happen this year. They're only averaging 1.15 points per shot (Arizona averages 1.39 PPS), which won't get it done against a quality opponent. What's worse, they're only shooting 31 percent from behind the arc and are a wink under 66 percent from the free throw line. In a tight game, someone needs to put the ball in the whole and outside of Pendergraph, Glasser and Polk, few have stepped up this year. That's not to say someone won't though. If there is one thing the Wildcats have proved this season it's that teams have played above their offensive averages against them due to their average at best defense. One likely dark horse is Jerren Shipp. The other is Atuahene who had a stellar second half in ASU's upset of USC last Sunday.
OFFENSIVE EDGE: ARIZONA
The eight day layoff should help Arizona on the offensive side of the ball. The team was able to heal some injuries by not practicing on Monday and Tuesday. They then had what coaches referred to as their most physical practice of the season, which tells me that most of the guys are feeling better, physically. Arizona was able to score against ASU's zone when the teams played in January. Budinger did an outstanding job in positioning himself in the high post (a notorious weak spot in a 2-3 Zone). With Williams playing this time, both he and Budinger need to filter through the middle of the key as much as possible. Also look for Arizona to expose another weakness in ASU's zone defense by flushing Hill or Radenovic toward the apex or the short post along the baseline. This makes entry passes easier from the wing and really puts pressure on the low post defender because it pulls them away from the basket and forces them to defend more space. From this position, Arizona can easier play three against two to stretch the Sun Devils and open up lanes for dribble penetration.
Defense has been the Achilles Heel of the Wildcats during Pac-10 play. They have struggled to defend in stretches but things aren't all that bad. Arizona is capable of getting stops and has done so in every game they've played. You can't go on 18-2, 15-5, 10-2 and 8-0 runs without playing a little defense. I mean, teams aren't just coming up the floor and handing the ball off to Shakur to ignite the fast break. When Arizona commits to playing defense, they've gotten it done. The probably has been their consistency to commit. Those strong defensive stretches were usually quickly followed by defensive lapses that allowed opponents to go on mini-runs of their own. Coach Olson has been preaching defense all season. If the coaching staff is serious about defense, then they will have to rotate into the game guys like Brielmaier and Dillon liberally so that whoever's playing during the closing minutes will not have tired legs.
Herb Sendek has introduced defense to the Valley of the Sun and despite the team having won only one conference game, as a fan, you can appreciate the effort put forth by this gutsy team. ASU could quite possibly go down as the best worst team in conference history. This team is young and lost two key players (offensive minded players at that) prior to the season that dramatically reversed their fortune. That, more than anything, is why they've lost so many games in the final 10 minutes. Opponents are able to double team players like Polk and Pendergraph and, as previously mentioned, no other teammate has been able to consistently make big shots to help them win. So, for now, many outstanding defensive efforts have gone wasted. ASU played mostly zone their first meeting with Arizona and I expect them to do much of the same tomorrow. You may see Atuahene try to pressure Shakur at half court a bit to disrupt Arizona's entry but not much more.
DEFENSIVE EDGE: ARIZONA STATE
I'm giving the edge to Arizona State because they've proven over the course of the entire season that they are more committed to playing defense than Arizona is. This is not to say that Arizona won't outplay the Sun Devils on defense Sunday night, which I think they will. I expect Shakur to pick up Glasser the second he crosses half court when in man-to-man. I also think Arizona will play a lot of zone like they did in the first game against ASU. In January, Arizona used a zone defense to hold ASU to 34.7 percent shooting. I know Arizona wants to play more man, and has, but some statistics you can't overlook and holding a team to that low of a field goal percentage while using it to easily win the game 71-47 is something you just can't ignore.
Like Apollo Creed implored of Rocky, "There is no tomorrow! There is no tomorrow!" I echo to the Wildcats.
Arizona has three games remaining on their regular season schedule and there is no better time than the present to start playing sound, team-oriented basketball. All the pieces are present. A month ago, Arizona got a spark from McClellan who broke out of a 0-16 three-point shooting slump to make 4 of 7 from behind the arc. Coming off an extended break, McClellan should be well rested and ready to contribute again. And, against ASU's zone, he'll get enough good looks to due some damage if he's feeling it.
Look for Arizona to pair McClellan with Williams and Radenovic on the same side of the floor when on offense. This will force the Sun Devils to try and defend three scorers with only two players. If they over rotate, then the skip pass to Budinger in the opposite corner will give the freshman forward some open looks from deep.
Expect ASU to play strong early. The game will be close and all Arizona has to do is come out focused, weather the Sun Devil emotional high, and then slowly look to build a lead by only taking good shots.
The Sun Devils were able to force USC into many bad shots early in the shot clock and that led to many easy transition baskets the other way. Arizona must avoid this and look to tire ASU so they can pull away in the second half as they did in their first match up. Arizona's half court defense is good enough to contain ASU so not giving up easy baskets by committing silly turnovers or taking ill-advised shots should be the team's primary focus.
If Arizona can play smart as a team, the game won't be a blowout but it shouldn't be close either.
ARIZONA 71 ASU 57