The Sun Devils and Bears are arguably the two most evenly matched Pac-10 teams, player versus player, in 2003. While there are significant differences, both have solid team chemistry, scorers, and newcomers that pay large dividends. Cal has certainly received the latter from freshman Richard Midgley, and to a lesser extent David Paris and Erik Bond. For Rob Evans, Ike Diogu has been an enormous addition. JC-transfer Jamal Hill has also played some key minutes, and will play even more minutes as the season continues due to injuries and academic problems at the small forward position. I picked the Bears to finish 3rd in the Pac-10, and the Sun Devils 4th, and I believe both could still happen. Stay Tuned.
Arizona State currently sits at 12-6 (4-3 in the Pac-10) and are regarded as a team that is much better than that because of a powerful inside tandem. Rob Evans, currently in his 5th year in Tempe, saw his team get out to a slow start after finishing the first seven games with a 4-3 record. They suffered a neutral court loss to Kentucky, a road loss to a Utah, and a home loss to BYU. They also beat Utah at the Maui Classic, and seemed to find their current confidence after beating Purdue by 17 at Wells Fargo Arena. In the recent loss to in-state rival Arizona, Coach Evans described the make-up of his squad this way, "This is a team that never quits. I'm proud of all these guys for the way they battled back. In the past, the Sun Devils would have folded, but this team will never fold."
Here is a quick look at the 2002-03 Arizona State team:
Projected Starting Lineup: (Returning starters in Bold)
- PG- Jason Braxton 6'2 180 So (4.8 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 2.6 apg)
- SG- Curtis Millage 6'2 175 Sr (13.7 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 1.9 apg, 29% 3-Ptr's)
- SF- Shawn Redhage 6'7 225 Sr (5.9 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 1.4 apg)
- PF- Tommie Smith 6'10 215 Sr (10.3 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 2.8 apg, 2.4 bpg)
- C- Ike Diogu 6'9 240 Fr (18.2 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 59% FG, 74% FT)
Key Returning Reserves:
- Jamal Hill 6'6 200 Jr (8.1 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 0.9 apg, 40% 3-Ptr's)
- Kenny Crandall 6'3 195 Jr (3.0 ppg, 1.0 rpg, 32% 3-Ptr's)
- Kyle Dodd 6'0 175 Sr (4.0 ppg, 1.8 rpg, 2.3 apg)
- Chris Osborne 6'9 240 Sr (2.4 ppg, 1.4 rpg)
- Donnell Knight 6'7 200 Sr (6.8 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 1.6 apg - May Not Play)
From the statistics, the Sun Devils are more one dimensional offensively than most Pac-10 followers realize. On the other hand, it's a sensational dimension to have, and one that almost no other team in the conference possesses. The inside tandem of Ike Diogu and Tommie Smith have been good for an average of 28.5 points and 13 rebounds per game - and it doesn't hurt to shoot a combined 55% from the floor either. Diogu is the most talked about young center in the Pac-10 for a number of reasons, and I wrote the following about him earlier this year in my preview: "Ike Diogu is a premier talent from Garland, Texas who scores, rebounds, and mixes in physicality. Unlike many post playing youngsters, Ike is very familiar with his frame and moves well in the lane, with excellent footwork. Diogu has an excellent background as well, as his brothers (Eddie & Eric) were both tight ends in College - one the starting TE on 1998 National Champion Tennessee Volunteers."
Needless to say, Ike has been a stud this year averaging over 18 points and 6 boards per game, and posting statistics that might get him 1st team All Pac-10 Honors. A very religious, composed, quiet interior player, Diogu has led the Devils in scoring in 11 of their 18 overall games. A big Ben Wallace fan, Diogu's most impressive statistic might be that he has made more free throws than anyone else in the conference has even attempted! His front court teammate Tommie Smith has largely gone unnoticed this year and that has allowed Tommie to step it up on the defensive end of the court. Smith is still foul prone due to his aggressive shot blocking skills, but his leadership abilities have soared this year. With Coach Evans direction, Smith hasn't been fazed whatsoever by the impact and headlining of Diogu. Backing up Smith and Diogu are seniors Chris Osborne and Shawn Redhage, though Redhage has a chance to start at the three against the Bears due to the recent academic problems of senior Donnell Knight. Knight has played much better this year after struggling throughout his time in Tempe, but might have to sit another game.
The Sun Devils do have statistical offensive balance in total stats, getting a little over 35 points per game from both their perimeter and post players, but this is a case where the stats do not tell the real story. As a team, the Sun Devils are a 32% 3-point shooting team - the worst in the Pac-10. The starting duo of Jason Braxton and Curtis Millage (CA-natives) shoot just 27% from behind the arc, and Braxton is a 46% free throw shooter, Millage sits at 58%. You have to give this tandem their props for scrappy hard nosed play, but there is no doubt that they are the most overrated starting offensive duo in the conference. If you want a statistic to back that up, here's one for you: Braxton and Millage have combined for just 17 three pointers in ASU's 18 games this year. I can't imagine worse production from your starting one and two guards. Luckily for Rob Evans, he recruited the small forward slot aggressively this past year and landed Jamal Hill, Serge Angoungou, and Allen Morill to go along with Redhage and Knight. Heading into this year, I thought this group of wings was the deepest in the conference. Hill is a talented scoring wing from San Jose City College, and played High School ball with Drew Gooden in El Cerrito, CA. His 40% 3-point shooting makes him the #1 source of scoring for the Sun Devils on the perimeter. However, Hill has really struggled his last two games scoring just 7 points against USC and 0 against Arizona. With those results, its no wonder that the Sun Devils lost both games. Morrill is redshirting this year, and in a crushing blow ASU lost the talented New Mexico native Serge Angoungou to a knee injury for the season. And again, Knight is out due to academics, so that wing strength turned into a weakness.
Ike Diogu and Tommie Smith might get most the accolades, but Jamal Hill and Curtis Millage are now the pivotal players on the team. Rob Evans can go with junior Kenny Crandall and senior Kyle Dodd, but Hill and Millage are the only two players that will stretch an opponent out of a zone. More on that later.
California 2002-03 Team:
Projected Starting Lineup: (Returning Starters in Bold) (2002-03 Statistics)
- PG- Richard Midgley, 6'1 200 Fr. (9.9 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 2.7 apg, 45% 3-ptrs)
- SG- Brian Wethers, 6'5 215 Sr. (13.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 3.1 apg, 33% 3-Ptr's)
- SF- Joe Shipp, 6'5 220 Sr. (20.9 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 2.4 apg, 45% 3-ptrs)
- F- Amit Tamir, 6'11 260 So. (17.0 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 3.0 apg, 44% 3-ptrs)
- C- Gabriel Hughes, 6'11 230 Jr. (2.4 ppg, 3.1 rpg)
- A.J. Diggs, 5'9 165 Jr. (3.9 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 2.5 apg, 2.2 spg)
- David Paris, 6'9 260 Fr. (2.1 ppg, 1.8 rpg)
- Erik Bond, 6'7 205 Fr. (2.2 ppg, 1.6 rpg, 0.7 apg, 27% 3-Ptr's)
- Conor Famulener, 6'6 230 Jr. (2.9 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 1.3 apg)
- Donte Smith, 6'2 190 Sr. (2.5 ppg, 1.0 apg, 1.000% 3-Ptr's)
- Rodrique Benson, 6'10 195 Fr. (Limited Minutes)
- Martin Smith (Limited Minutes)
- Tashaan Forehan-Kelly, 6'3 170 So. (Limited Minutes)
- Jordi Vilardell, 6'10 190 Fr. (Limited Minutes)
The Bears fly into Phoenix as one of the surprise teams in the country at 14-2 overall (7-0 in the Pac-10) to go along with a top 25 ranking in just about any major poll. Cal still remains outside the RPI top 30 due to their strength of schedule, but playing #1 Arizona in Tucson will help boost that no matter the results. Ben Braun's squad has beat every Pac-10 team once so far except for ASU and Arizona - so that's their mission this week in the Grand Canyon state.
Cal has won four straight in this series, sweeping ASU two consecutive years now. I am certain the Bears have a ton of respect for the Sun Devils program, but at the same time I think the Cal players are confident of success - and that results in wins. Last year, Cal showed that they were clearly a better defensive team in both games, holding the Sun Devils to 38% shooting on Feb 2 in Berkeley...and 45% shooting twenty-six days later in Tempe. Cal shot over 50% in both games. With another year under their belt and primary scorers identified, the Bears have a chance to do even better this year.
This game will be about Cal attacking the Sun Devils defensively in the post, forcing the perimeter players into shooting jumper's. As I wrote earlier this week, ASU reminds me quite a bit of Cal's 1999-00 squad that was also rather one-dimensional. There are a ton of similarities, as Ike Diogu is a force in the paint, as was Cal's Sean Lampley. Cal was 11-7 at one point, ASU sits at 12-6. In each season, they lost similar games to similar teams. The Bears just couldn't get over the hump though in 2000, as they never developed a consistent scoring threat from the perimeter. That led to Cal losing every key Pac-10 match-up during the season. Stanford, Oregon, and Arizona were the top 3 teams that year (Arizona and Stanford were top 5 national teams), and the Bears went 0-6 against that trio combined. ASU is facing the same situation here in 2003 that Cal did in 2000, the only difference being that Cal is one of those top 3 teams. So far, the Sun Devils are already 0-2 in those key games.
The main difference between the 2000 Cal program and the current Sun Devils team is that ASU has more veterans. However, the only way they can take the next step (essential if they hope to make the NCAA Tournament) is by improving their perimeter game. Cal never did that in 2000 and it continued to plague them down the stretch that year. The reality at ASU is that the opportunity is there for them right now, and if they make some adjustments, they have a chance to do what Cal did not do then.
Cal will face an ASU team with a stronger sense of identity than in years past. Chad Prewitt was a hard nosed interior player, but Prewitt enjoyed facing up more than with his back to the basket. Diogu chooses to attack the rim with his athleticism, or force fouls from his opponents. Ike is one of the rare young players with height who can walk into the Pac-10 from high school and with absolute confidence play the back to the basket post position. You probably can credit his brothers for that. But Diogu is going to be swarmed on Thursday night, and I believe the Bears will likely play a packed in man-to-man defense, or even a compacted 2-3 zone with three defenders in the paint anytime he touches the ball. If Diogu catches the ball, he'll be double-teamed no matter what defense anyone calls it. That should result in Ike passing the ball out, but that truly is his one glaring weakness: passing. I have yet to see Diogu throw well out of a double team, he usually just tries to keep grinding.
I have no doubt after watching tape of ASU that Cal will challenge Diogu or Smith to beat them in the post. Again, that means Coach Braun will likely have his defenders force perimeter players Curtis Millage and Jason Braxton to shoot the ball. Last year, the Bears guarded Millage closely but let Braxton take anything he wanted, and that really frustrated Jason. Millage shot the ball better a year ago.
The problems are numerous for Coach Evans when he faces this defense; it's exactly what Coach Braun went through when all the Bears had offensively was Sean Lampley. Everyone around the ASU program knows that the team's confidence and offensive spark revolves around Diogu. They will be forced to find ways to get him the ball, that's what happens when you are one-dimensional. In the recent ASU-USC game at the Sports Arena in Los Angeles, USC did not double down on the post, and Diogu flat out dominated the paint that night with 24 points (nearly a third of ASU's total points that game). The Trojans did win, but the tactics could have been better. You can bet your bottom dollar that Coach Braun will have his team prepared.
I believe this match-up will involve more coaching strategy than any other I have previewed this year, and that's due to the unique scoring that both teams use. The Bears like to get points from both both Brian Wethers and Richard Midgley driving to the hoop. Shipp, Tamir, and Midgley are three of the top five leaders in Pac-10 three point shooting percentage, and Brian Wethers can get red hot from just about anywhere. All four of the Bears top scorers have shown the ability to carry the team on any given night. The Bears bench is better defensively.
With the game in Tempe, and how much this game means to the Sun Devils for their post-season and Pac-10 chances, mixed with their desire to end the 4-game skid to Cal and their own 2-game losing streak - this is an enormous game for them. Rob Evans will have them very fired up, and I think they'll play with plenty of fuel in their tanks knowing all that is on the line. The truth is though, that Cal will be well-prepped on how to stop and counter ASU, so I believe it will come down to matching ASU's intensity and sticking with the game plan. I believe Cal will handle the road pressure.
The key player for Cal will again be Amit Tamir, as he draws the task of being the center of Thursday night's defensive scheme on Diogu. Offensively he has a chance to draw a number of fouls on Tommie Smith, one of the most foul prone players in the Pac-10. If Tamir plays a big game, Joe Shipp and Brian Wethers will be able to run the floor, score, and contribute their normal rebounding stats. I do believe that the Sun Devils will be surprised by the confidence and intelligence of Richard Midgley, the Bears newcomer at the point. I think he has surprised everyone this year with his ability to control the tempo of a game, and his developing instinct for making the big play. The overall tempo of this contest should be more defensive, and it wouldn't surprise me to see a number of runs both ways. Overall I see a lower scoring game ... and I'll predict a 75-67 Cal win.
I believe if Amit Tamir puts up 18+ points and 8 boards, he'll be the Player of the Game. I am currently 15-1 on the year in Predictions.
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