Arizona State Preview

Take a break from those dreamy thoughts of NCAA seeding grandeur, or repeat #1 knockdowns of the Wildcats. Thursday brings a contending ASU squad to Maples that is still fuming from a one-point loss at the hands of the Cardinal four weeks ago. Ike Diogu had a career-high 14 boards in that game and is a top focus this time around...

Arizona State @ Stanford  2/27/03
Tip-off: 7:00 pm (PST)

Sponsored by the The Cafe at the Arrillaga Alumni Center: Official Pre-Game Hangout of The Bootleg

As focused as you might be on Saturday's colossal clash with #1 Arizona, keep in mind just how dangerous Thursday's Arizona State squad is.  If not for a somewhat flukish play in the final seconds of the first meeting between these teams in Tempe, when a missed Rob Little free throw came hard off the front rim right to a slashing Josh Childress for the surprising offensive rebound and putback score, Stanford probably loses that game.  ASU is #29 in the current RPI mirror rankings by Jerry Palm, and would be an eight-seed according to Palm in the NCAA tournament today.  With 17 wins and three weeks to go in the season before the NCAAs, that's a hair better than Stanford was at this time last year.  In the current team ratings by Jeff Sagarin, Stanford is just fractionally ahead of the Sun Devils this year, #24 versus #28.

ASU is a pretty veteran squad, and that's a big reason they have played consistently so well this year.  Ike Diogu has pulled in all the accolades, and deservedly so, but for Pac-10 pundits who have been waiting for the other shoe to drop on this stellar Sun Devil season, the senior core of this team has disappointed the skeptics.  Donnell Knight, Tommy Smith, Shawn Redhage and Kyle Dodd were all in Rob Evans' first full recruiting class, and though they have not all lived up to some of their hype, they are all playing big roles in this team's success.  Then throw in Curtis Millage, who came to Tempe by way of junior college in Los Angeles and is also a senior this season.  The quintet of seniors account for 53% of the team's scoring and 67% of the team's assists.

The youth movement includes the famed frosh Diogu, who is by many people's accounts the top post player in the conference right now, plus sophomore Jason Braxton as arguably the top rated point guard ASU has ever pulled in.  The frontcourt with Diogu should have been even more impressive this year with Evans' infamous plan when he recruited a trio of top players the summer of 2001.  He wanted the core of his future in Tempe to be built around three very different but three very potentially dominant players.  Diogu (a top 50 national player last year in high school) was to be the dominating low post beast.  Serge Angounou (2002 New Mexico state Player of the Year, though originally from Cameroon) is also in this frosh class but is taking a medical redshirt after a season ending knee injury and surgery in a November exhibition game.  He was to be the inside/outside do-everything player like a Josh Childress, but with more muscle.  And Stanford's own Matt Haryasz was to be the versatile forward/center who could add a tremendous amount of skill in the post to go with Diogu's bulldozer strength and physical style.  So when you marvel at what Diogu is doing this year for ASU, imagine what they might be like had Rob Evans pulled in Haryasz and had Angounou not been hurt.  Whoof.

As a team, they are very long and very athletic at four starting positions, the point guard through power forward.  "They're quick and long - quick to the point-of-attack," says Stanford head coach Mike Montgomery.  "Rob Evans teaches defense, and he gets his guys up in you.  And when you have quickness and length like they have, you can recover from mistakes in that position in a hurry.  Braxton and Millage are two of the greatest guards in the conference."  Knight and Smith are very long and agile, as well, which can present some offensive mismatches against most forwards.  Stanford of course has a very quick starting pair of forwards as well, which makes these matchups interesting to watch.

The start of the February 1st game between the Cardinal and the Sun Devils was an inauspicious one, with ASU taking a quick 12-4 lead.  Diogu was creating all kinds of problems down low against Rob Little, and Stanford had to move to its 1-1-3 zone defense.  Though the game would be nip-and-tuck all the way to the final buzzer, the zone clearly did its damage with Diogu scoring just five field goals all game after a start that looked like he could hit for 30 points.  And as a team, ASU hit for just 31.6% from the field.  You might think Stanford will whip out that zone to start this game, but Montgomery says that is not at all his way of thinking.  "Man-to-man is our primary defense, and you go with that until someone makes you change," he says.  Certainly worth watching how Stanford handles the individual matchups early, and how long it takes to go into the zone defense.  And with ASU ranking ninth in the conference in three-point shooting percentage, odds say that Stanford doesn't take a big risk when zoning on defense.

The Starters

#1 PG Jason Braxton So 6-2 190 4.6 ppg 2.6 apg 17.6% 3FG
#14 SG Curtis Millage Sr 6-2 185 14.8 ppg 2.8 apg 32.5% 3FG
#21 SF Donnell Knight Sr 6-7 200 6.0 ppg 4.5 rpg 50.0% FG
#4 PF Tommy Smith Sr 6-10 215 10.6 ppg 6.4 rpg 50.7% FG
#5 C Ike Diogu Fr 6-8 250 18.8 ppg 7.1 rpg 60.1% FG

Braxton maybe could be a good perimeter player if he chose to hone that part of his game, but he has taken just 17 treys all year and instead has found his points in transition and driving to the basket.  He likes to use his quickness and athleticism to penetrate the defense, and either throw up a tough shot (shooting just 35.9% from the field this year) or dish to a teammate.  Very outstanding athlete, but he hasn't figured out how to score regularly and ranks fourth on his own team in assists.

Millage is a proven offensive threat and in some ways is the model for what Braxton should become.  The lefty has a very quick first step and knows how to finish when he drives to the hole.  Also gets to the free throw line much more often than Braxton, averaging 4.5 FT attempts per game.  He's a streaky outside shooter, though, and you don't know what you'll get from him on a given night.  He had a solid game a month ago against Stanford, hitting 6-of-11 from the field and 2-of-4 from outside.  Big defensive challenge for Matt Lottich when Stanford stays in a man defense, though don't be surprised if Julius Barnes plays Millage while Braxton shies away from scoring.

Donnell Knight had a world of potential out of high school, and I've been surprised at how little he has developed since his freshman year.  Knight was a local legend in Tempe and hailed as ASU's top recruit in the last 20 years, including his Parade All-American honors.  Started from day one in his first Arizona State game his freshman year, but would start just once more that year.  He had to start his sophomore season, and averaged 9.8 ppg, but flopped his junior year and started just four times all year while his minutes and scoring took a nose dive. He has length and some athletic gifts that should let him dominate against Pac-10 small forwards, but his college career has been a discontinuous series of flashes.  Tremendous disappointment.  Knight likes to drive with the ball, but doesn't show a good head for what to do with it.  Disappears in big games, including two points last week against Arizona and five points on 1-of-8 shooting against Stanford.

Tommy Smith is similar to Knight in that he has such a long and rangy frame, but he shows a better feel for the game.  Also likes to slash from the perimeter and take advantage of his quickness advantage against opposing big men, so watch and see if Justin Davis picks up fouls trying to keep Smith from driving on him.  Very good shotblocker (2.36 per game, leading the entire conference), but also leads his team in fouls.  Just as he can put Davis in foul trouble with his quickness, so too can Davis put Smith on the bench with his spin moves and attacking mentality.

Diogu is the crown jewel of this team, and the future of Arizona State basketball for as long as he sticks around.  He plays so big and strong in the low post, and deceptively racks up points though not always from the field.  In his game against Stanford, he made just five field goals but continually drew fouls and went to the line seven times.  Indeed, Diogu has scored almost a third of his points this year from the free throw line.  Though just a freshman, he has made more free throws than any other player in the conference has attempted.  That's scary enough, but then you watch his Texas phenom kill you with his high post game.  For such a physically bruising player, you don't expect to see his soft touch facing the basket, but he hit a few of those shots against the Cardinal including one three-pointer.  Also fifth in the conference in rebounding, and fourth on the offensive boards.

The Bench

#3 PG Kyle Dodd Sr 6-0 175 4.0 ppg 3.1 apg 47.1% 3FG
#12 SG Kenny Crandall Jr 6-3 200 2.8 ppg 0.9 apg 30.2% 3FG
#22 G/F Jamal Hill Jr 6-5 190 7.8 ppg 2.1 rpg 35.6% 3FG
#42 F Shawn Redhage Sr 6-8 225 7.1 ppg 3.2 rpg 49.2% FG

You may have a hard time getting excited about Kyle Dodd, but you should pay him close attention.  Though he is a very middling scoring threat, averaging less than two field goals per game and hitting just eight treys all year (one in the previous meeting with Stanford), he is a smart and veteran player who runs the team well.  His assist-to-turnover ratio is absolutely ridiculous, currently leading the conference by a wide margin at 4.59.  With 78 assists on the season coming off the bench, he has turned the ball over just 17 times all year.  Dodd will come off the bench to help steady the team with the athletic but sometimes wild pair of Braxton and Millage are out of control.  Dodd also breaks stereotypes of a white point guard on a roster of quick and athletic backcourt teammates; yes, Dodd is a pretty good defensive specialist as well.  You almost have to dare him to shoot to get him to take shots.

Crandall is offensively the opposite of Dodd, looking to score from the perimeter when he gets into the game.  He would be an even bigger offensive threat if not for an off-season dirt bike accident that cut down his conditioning.  He shot 42% from three-point range last year, but is just barely clearing 30% this season.  When Stanford goes into a zone defense, though, Crandall is one of their top options to try and find outside scoring opportunities.  Has only hit four field goals inside the arc, though, all year.  A kid who took a two-year Mormon mission, he also brings a Nick Robinson-like veteran presence and leadership to the team.  To underscore how long he's been around, Crandall was a high school teammate with NFL tight end and former Sun Devil standout Todd Heap; he also was an AAU teammate with Chad Prewitt.

Jamal Hill is the Devils' biggest offensive weapon off the bench.  He was a top JUCO player last year at San Jose City College, and can play either wing position off the bench.  Good athlete who, unlike Crandall, can create his own shot from just about anywhere on the floor.  Good shooter, and probably the team's best pure scorer.  He averages 21 minutes per game and is fourth on the team in scoring.  That might surprise Stanford fans, given that he played just six minutes in the previous meeting in Tempe, and failed to score on four shot attempts (three from deep).

Redhage is an efficient combo forward who can play on the perimeter or in the paint.  He provides depth behind Smith and Knight, but has never really pushed for bigger minutes or a starting role (one start this season) due to his limited athleticism.  Justin Davis has the potential to abuse him inside, while Josh Childress can drive on him all day from the perimeter.  On the offensive end, he is a smart player who likes to put the ball on the floor, and uses pump fakes to create scoring opportunities that his limited quickness cannot provide.

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