Arizona State Preview

The Arizona State Sun Devils aren't very good, but they have a few match-ups that could pose a bit of a challenge for a Josh-Smith-less UCLA...

Thursday's game against the Arizona Wildcats was huge for the UCLA Bruins, not because the Bruins won the game but because the Bruins showed a level of sustained effort that was lacking at times this season. As I wrote in the Arizona game preview, there was some question as to whether Coach Ben Howland has lost this group of UCLA players and there was real concern that the Bruins would essentially mail it in for the rest of the schedule. The Arizona game and the effort the Bruins put forth, especially on the defensive end, clearly indicated that these young Bruins have not given up on the season.

Now the Bruins get ready to face an Arizona State team that is probably buoyant because of its win at the Galen Center against USC on Thursday. That win for the 5-11 Sun Devils was pretty remarkable considering that ASU was missing three suspended players, including arguably their best player in sophomore Keala King, for conduct detrimental to the team. Fellow sophomore Kyle Cain and junior Chris Colvin were also suspended. King and Cain were/are both starters while Colvin has been a part-time starter and was/is certainly in Coach Herb Sendek's rotation.

After putting forth a very good effort on Thursday, the question is obviously: What will the Bruins have in the effort/emotional tank for the Sun Devils? Actually, the Sun Devils face the same question. The determining factor in this game will be effort, but, for the first time in a few weeks, the Bruins will clearly be the more talented team.

ASU is a bad team. That fact is very apparent. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to look at ASU's schedule and see that they've been much more disappointing than the Bruins. If Tracy Pierson thought Arizona had mid-major talent, then imagine what he thinks of ASU's. Now to their credit, they did play well against USC and they do tend to (mostly) buy in to Sendek's very deliberate system. However, the Sun Devils were banking on having highly-rated point guard Jahii Carson, and when he was declared academically ineligible for the season then ASU's chances for success went down the tubes.

Sendek does have two players who play his system well and are solid players. Junior wing Carrick Felix (6'6" 196 lbs.) had a career night against the Trojans, scoring 22 points on 8-12 shooting, including 3-4 from distance. Felix is mainly a three-point threat, having taken more than half of his 114 shot attempts on the season beyond the arc. The USC game was really the first time that he fired more from inside the arc than out. He doesn't rebound particularly well for his size, but when Sendek goes to his well-known zone defense Felix is more in his element as he is a smart player who knows where to be both on the ball side and weak side of the zone.

Arguably the most important player for ASU is junior Trent Lockett (6'4" 210 lbs.) from Golden Valley, Minnesota (which means I had the opportunity to see him a great deal in high school). Quite simply the kid is a warrior. He plays wherever Sendek and the team need him. To illustrate this point, Lockett, all 6'4" of him, leads the Sun Devils in rebounding at 6.9 RPG. He is also the team's leading scorer and has the best shooting percentage. UCLA would love to have Lockett on its roster to play the small forward spot. He is the one player who will always defend with intensity and he is the one player ASU has that can somewhat create for himself. To top things off, Lockett will play the point on occasion for the Sun Devils because that's where he's needed. He had very good games against the Bruins last season and that will probably continue. If Lockett is off his game then expect UCLA to steamroll the Sun Devils.

After those two, Sendek is really just grasping at straws. It worked well on Thursday and expect him to stick with the line-up that beat USC, but many nights he has too many holes in his line-up to fill. Keep in mind that with the suspensions Sendek basically plays only six kids. Seven players got in the box score against USC, but walk-on freshman guard Max Heller (5'9" 150 lbs.) was the seventh player and he only played 6 minutes.

The four players that Sendek will undoubtedly employ against the Bruins include two big posts, a forward and a wing. Now you know why Lockett has to handle the point.

The two posts are junior Ruslan Pateev (7'0" 249 lbs.) and sophomore Jordan Bachynski (7'2" 243 lbs.). Both are slow but imposing big men. They will present an entirely different look than what the Bruin posts saw against the Wildcats. While ‘Zona looked to have their posts face the basket and drive, ASU will look to patiently establish either of their big men on the low block with their back to the basket. Both of them have eerily similar numbers, from minutes played to rebounding, except in one area: free throw percentage. Pateev hits at an 87% clip while Bachynski is so poor that putting him on the line is essentially a turnover for ASU. He makes Anthony Stover look like Rick Barry. Because of the suspensions, they will play a ton of minutes, pretty much doubling what they were averaging before the suspensions.

The other two players will be Danish small forward Jonathan Gilling (6'7" 200 lbs.), a freshman, and sophomore wing Chanse Creekmur (6'5" 216 lbs.). Both are almost strictly three-point shooters, with Creekmur having averaged a few more shots, minutes and points than his foreign teammate. However, Gilling had a nice game against the Trojans, going off for 12 points, including 2-5 from distance (In fact, ASU was 7-13 from behind the arc, which is uncharacteristic for the Sun Devils on the season. They typically hit about 36% of their three-pointers, although this is mitigated by the fact that about 1/3 of their shots are from behind the line).

It's pretty clear that if UCLA plays man-to-man defense as intense and smartly as they did against Arizona the Bruins are going to blow the Sun Devils out of the Honda Center. However, Sendek will more than likely have a better game plan than Arizona's Sean Miller had for the offensive side of the floor. It's pretty evident that Arizona was expecting Josh Smith to play and planned accordingly. (The issue for the Wildcats was they adjusted very late to what was obviously hurting them on when they were playing defense.) Don't expect ASU to play the same way. First off, ASU's low-post strength is playing the back-to-the-basket approach from its posts. Pateev and Bachynski are both more plodding players so they aren't going to be dribbling much at the Bruin bigs. Further, with ASU's depth decimated by the suspensions, Sendek is going to want to slow down things to a crawl. The Sun Devils will use most of a shot clock and they will set numerous screens that the Bruins will have to fight through every bit as intensely as they did on Thursday night.

Defensively, the Sun Devils mixed man and zone defenses against the Trojans but expect them to play mostly a match-up zone against the Bruins. That will do several things: First, it will allow the Sun Devil players to conserve a bit of energy; second, it will slow down the game, which is what Sendek wants to do anyway; and lastly, it gives the Sun Devils the opportunity to force UCLA into outside shots.

The Bruins also won't be facing much man defense because Sendek most certainly will have seen the tape of UCLA's Thursday night win and see what the Bruins did to a more athletic Arizona team (the Wildcats beat the Sun Devils in Tucson last weekend by almost 20). So he's not going to want to give the Bruins the opportunity for easy put-backs, backdoor cuts and the like.

It remains to be seen if Smith will play for the Bruins and, even if he does, how effective he'd be. Up to this point in the season he hasn't shown that he would have done better than either of the Wear brothers did against the Wildcats. He has the potential, that much is clear. However, if Smith did decide to start playing as he did last season on Saturday then he could really dominate the ASU front line. As big and long as the two ASU bigs are, they athletically can't stay with Smith. But again, that's if Smith's light bulb goes on.

The Wear brothers had very good games against the Wildcats. They were active on both ends of the floor and very efficient with their shots. However, that was against players they could dominate with sheer length. They won't be able to do that against the Sun Devils. They will have an athletic advantage, but that has been a poor recipe for the Wears as that tends to have them float more towards the arc and become jump shooters.

Outside of Lockett, who will be tough, the Sun Devils wings are so one-dimensional that it almost makes sense to go to a man defense. However, if those one-dimensional players get hot at what they do well (shoot three-pointers), then UCLA may have to revert to a zone. UCLA has a length advantage across the roster and an athleticism advantage that USC simply didn't have against the Sun Devils. The Bruin zone has been susceptible to dribble penetration and ASU simply won't be able to do that well as that's not the game their players have. When UCLA's zone has been able to keep teams out of the paint, a la Stanford, the Bruins have been very good at closing on shooters.

UCLA is bound to be due for a bit of a letdown after the big Thursday game. That's only natural considering the mental state of this team and its apparent fragility. ASU will probably come out fired up because they can play with nothing to lose. It wouldn't surprise me, though, to see ASU mentally wilt if the Bruins make a run in the first half. The Sun Devils got the win they craved on this trip and a win over UCLA would just be icing on the cake but not nearly necessary to consider the L.A. trip a success. Further, Sendek clearly coached against USC as if he knew that was ASU's best shot at getting a win on this road trip. His players will most certainly sense that, too.

Both teams will be tired, but if UCLA gets Smith back then he will be rested and it gives Howland another body to add to the rotation. That in and of itself may be enough to turn this game into a less competitive one. You can add to that the fact that UCLA just doesn't turn the ball over (except the Cal game) and that will take away a key component to ASU's ability to make it a game, although against USC ASU had 18 TOs to the Trojans' 6. (It was the shooting that did in the Trojans…ASU was 61% from the floor for the game.) ASU turns the ball over a lot. Typically, if they can't get a like return from their opponent then they've been run off the floor.

It'll be a middling game and there may be little flow. The key here is that UCLA will have a big talent advantage even without Smith and they also will have a depth and athletic advantage. The only way ASU wins is if they give the effort they gave against USC and UCLA falls flat on its collective face. Too much would have to go right for the Sun Devils for that to happen. However, the game should be closer than some people think.

Arizona State 57

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