Pac-12 Tourney Preview: ASU

Being the third time the team's have meant, we all know the match-ups between ASU and UCLA. The game could come down to motivation this time -- which teams wants it more...

The UCLA Bruin men's basketball team, the 2012-2013 Pac 12 regular season champions, starts its postseason quest for glory on Thursday afternoon in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas. The Bruins will face the Arizona State Sun Devils, winners of a first round game on Wednesday against the Stanford Cardinal. The game will tip at noon PDST at the MGM Garden Arena and be televised by the Pac 12 Network.

Throughout this season I have spent much of the space of the respective game previews delving into the statistical match-ups, various personnel and coaching challenges the Bruins faced against different opponents. For the next few days (hopefully), the Bruins will be facing teams they've already faced twice this year. That means that for as long as the Bruins are alive in the tournament in Sin City, they'll be facing teams for a third time. That means exploring the same aspects of a given game as has been done twice previously is a bit redundant. That being the case, I would like to look into more of the intangibles that may truly dictate the outcome of a given game.

Let's start with the reasons why the Sun Devils should win; ASU is, first and foremost, arguably the toughest match-up the Bruins have faced in the conference this season. That's because of freshman point guard Jahii Carson (5'10" 175), who is probably the best player in the conference. Although he can be a bit inconsistent at times, Carson has been the difference between ASU's putrid 2011-2012 edition and the current version of the Sun Devils fighting for an NCAA Tournament berth. Carson has been almost impossible to guard for UCLA's Larry Drew II and Norman Powell and hit for 34 points on Wednesday in ASU's "upset" win against Stanford.

Carson might be the most important weapon for Coach Herb Sendek, but he's not the only one. Senior forward Carrick Felix (6'6" 197 lbs.) has had a magnificent season himself and scored 19 points to go with 12 boards against the Cardinal. He is a threat from deep and on the drive and has also been difficult for the Bruins to match up against. Junior post Jordan Bachynski (7'2" 250 lbs.) was a one-man wrecking crew when the Bruins were in Tempe. In short, the Sun Devils have a line-up that is pretty good in the areas that UCLA struggles. They have Carson's quickness against a very mediocre UCLA defense, Felix's athleticism against a relatively unathletic Bruin squad and Bachynski's size against a Bruin team without any real post presence.

Another point in Arizona State's favor is the fact that tomorrow's game for the Sun Devils could very well be for their NCAA Tournament lives. As much as Bruin fans want to argue that UCLA has a lot to play for in terms of seeding and momentum, the reality is that ASU has all the motivation in the world to give a leave-it-all-on-the-floor kind of effort. UCLA is already in the NCAAs; ASU is playing to get into the Tourney. Against a UCLA team that has maddeningly not mentally shown up for some games this season, that fact alone might be enough to carry ASU to victory.

Those are some pretty big factors in ASU's favor, but there still may be one more. When the Bruins won the game with ASU in Los Angeles, the coaching match-up was a draw because Larry Drew II was able to hit enough shots to make Sendek's game plan of sagging off Drew not work quite as well as it did in Tempe. And is that ever an understatement. Sendek clearly won the coaching battle in Tempe, so much so that it could actually have been the primary reason for ASU winning in a blowout. If Sendek wins the coaching match-up on Thursday then UCLA will be going home early.

How about looking at some factors that would point to an ASU loss? In spite of how well Carson and Felix played in Wednesday's game, they played 43 and 44 minutes respectively (out of a possible 45). In fact, five Sun Devils played at least 38 minutes and four of those five played at least 43 minutes. This is a Sun Devil team that wasn't playing with much of a bench to begin with and now will be playing a game less than 24 hours after the majority of the players who actually see the floor played one of their longest game logs of the year. ASU lost its last four games coming into Las Vegas and looked increasingly tired in the second half of games. In fact, the tired legs struck again against Stanford. ASU had the game in hand with less than two minutes to go in regulation when they began making mental errors and missing free throws. Stanford was very lucky to get the game to overtime, but then they should have won the game in the extra session if not for its own mistakes and Carson's superior play.

There are, of course, reasons why the Bruins could lose that have nothing to do with what ASU does, namely the lack of maturity on this Bruin squad. As I wrote previously, UCLA has played several games his season where they simply didn't mentally show up. The Bruins have done that in games that were two days after a big victory and after long layoffs, so there seems to be no rhyme or reason as to why the Bruins have there inconsistent efforts.

Then there's UCLA's penchant for being almost exclusively a jump shooting team. There were games where the shots simply weren't falling and as a result the Bruins were blown out in Tempe, Berkeley and the Palouse. Remember, if UCLA's offense isn't clicking, the Bruins don't exactly have the kind of lockdown defense needed to get them through a poor shooting night.

Finally, UCLA Coach Ben Howland has proven adept in his career at preparing his team for opponents when he has at least three days to do so. In this case, unless Howland or someone on the staff was clairvoyant, he has had less than a day to prep for the Sun Devils. If Howland is the best coach at prepping his kids for an opponent, that advantage is basically negated because of the nature of tournament basketball.

I have, however, saved the best for last, and that is the sole reason that could give the Bruins a real edge on Thursday. Actually, it's two reasons, or rather, two players: Shabazz Muhammad and Jordan Adams. This is complete conjecture, but I think it's an educated guess rather than blindly throwing things at the proverbial wall to see what sticks. This is Muhammad's homecoming game and he has almost always played well (since he got back into shape) when the "lights have been on." The lights won't be any brighter in his mind than they will be over the course of UCLA's Pac-12 Tournament, and that may include the Big Dance. That's because Muhammad will be playing before almost all of his friends and family for the first time. Don't be surprised if Muhammad has a game where he goes off.

However, Adams may be the difference-maker. Think about it: Adams plays with some pride. He's a good kid and he's competitive as heck. That's why his not being picked for the all-freshmen team may be a blessing in disguise. Don't be surprised if Adams plays like a man possessed on Thursday, channeling the anger of the perceived slight into a great effort.

While I know that ASU is a difficult match-up for the Bruins, the fact that ASU's starters (outside of Bachynski, who only played 8 minutes) all basically played the entire game on Wednesday is going to catch up with them. Plus, I think that Muhammad's and Adams' motivation, for various reasons, is truly going to be strong enough to carry this team.

Who knows, right? The Bruins may lose by 20 to ASU and then go on a run in the NCAAs. However, this is my story and I'm sticking with it.

Don't be surprised if this is a high-scoring game.

UCLA 79
Arizona State 70


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