“In the city, always a reflection. In the forest, always a sound. “
“What about the desert?”
“You don’t wanna go into the desert.”
And so as Stanford digs frantically out of the canyon of desperation into the March light, they are tasked with conquering that most fearful and unpleasant of terrains. The Tempe/Tucson Two-Step has proven fatal for Stanford’s hopes and dreams for the vast majority of Coach Johnny Dawkins’ tenure. Considering there have only been five road sweeps in Pac-12 play this season and that Stanford has never beaten Arizona under Coach Dawkins, the task is daunting, but doable.
It all starts tonight in The Valley of the Sun, where Stanford’s revived offense has a chance to sustain its streak of proficiency against an Arizona State team that plays no kind of defense. In Pac-12 play, ASU has the second-highest defensive efficiency rating (112.3), and they allow the highest three-point shooting percentage and two-point shooting percentage.
ASU’s interior has been inviting to opponents, as the Sun Devils’ 6.7% block rate is the lowest in the conference. The only thing that keeps ASU from being completely hopeless on defense is their ability to generate turnovers at a slightly above average rate. They are currently rated fifth in the Pac-12 in this category. Arizona State’s defense only allows a respectable 28.1% of available offensive rebounds to go to the opponent. So we can say that the few shots not going through the hoop don’t end up in the hands of the opponent too often.
As far as Stanford defending ASU, the Sun Devils don’t shoot it well themselves . At 47.9%, their EFG% is tenth in the league. They don’t get to the foul line very often, checking in with a free throw rate of 35%, eighth in the Pac-12. That’s ok, because when they get to the line, their 66% is tenth, so they don’t really take advantage of the charity stripe at all.
Perhaps because they are often unwilling guests at opponents’ block parties, the Sun Devils jack up the most threes in the league. ASU opponents block 15.3% of the Sun Devils’ field goal attempts, the highest percentage in the league. Conversely, ASU takes 41.5% of its shots from behind the three point arc, where they make essentially the D-1 average at about 35%.
It’s that tendency that creates most of the intrigue in this game tactically. Stanford has been doing two things in increased doses lately: playing zone and going with bigger lineups, ones that often feature Grant Verhoeven, Michael Humphrey or occasionally Josh Sharma on the court at the same time. Going big has helped Stanford’s defense, but the issue is whether or not those backline trees can close out on the corner threes ASU is likely to chuck up towards the hoop.
Coach Bobby Hurley’s first season has been a difficult one, and ASU enters this game as losers of four in a row and six of their last eight. Certainly the defensive struggles have played a starring role in their descent. Individually, Stanford will need to check Sophomore Tra Holder, who plays nearly 80% of the available minutes and shoots a very proficient 38% from the three point arc. The Sun Devils have but one rotation player taller than 6’7”, so if Humphrey is on his game he could put up some great numbers in his hometown return. Forward Obinna Oleka is the only Arizona State player with an offensive efficiency close to the D-1 average, though he only plays 61% of the available minutes.
Stanford’s task grows more challenging with the absence of Christian Sanders, who has been suspended indefinitely by Coach Johnny Dawkins for an undisclosed violation of team rules. Sanders has been the Cardinal’s starting point guard, so it will be interesting to see who goes tonight. Malcolm Allen and Marcus Sheffield have both had time running the team from the lead guard spot. Sanders made the trip to Phoenix last night, but will not be playing this weekend.
Stanford remains on the outside looking into the NCAA Tournament field, but that they still have a chance to at least play themselves into the discussion is a credit if nothing else to their resilience. Before they can realistically aspire to an invitation to the NCAA’s, they need to take care of business in Tempe. Yes, Arizona State is not a quality opponent, but this conference has proven that everybody (except Washington State) is a threat to everyone else.
The Sun Devils were on the verge of completing a huge comeback when the teams first met at Maples, until Rosco Allen went coast-to-coast to give Stanford a thrilling 75-73 win. Stanford’s defense lagged it in the second half, just as it has during the Cardinal’s overall improved play. If the Cardinal can vex ASU for at least a half and maintain some semblance of the offensive proficiency shown as of late, it should be a good night in Tempe.