9th ranked UCLA (12-3, 4-1) heads out to Tempe to face the appropriately-named Sun Devils of Arizona State (10-5, 3-3) Thursday night (the game will be telecast on FSN at 5:30 PM, so crank up those VCRs to tape the "Buffy" reruns on FX at 6 and 7).
In our preseason preview, we picked ASU to beat UCLA in this game, and there's not really any pressing reason to change that view. The Sun Devils play very well at home (9-1), and they've already handed an excellent #22 Oregon squad its only Pac-10 loss of the season.
Head Coach Rob Evans has his guys playing d like, well, like Sun Devils. ASU's fullcourt pressure d, and UCLA's response to it, is one of the three main keys to this game. The Sun Devils force 19.5 turnovers per game, and they get a lot of points by converting those takeaways. If you break ASU's pressure, they lack the strong interior defense to prevent teams from scoring in the paint, and if you make them go deep into the shot clock, they will give up open looks from 3 as well. Evans' club is 9th in the conference in FG% defense at 45.7%, and that reflects the hit or miss aspect of their pressure d.
On offense, ASU has struggled with its perimeter shooting for much of the season. They have a lot of quick players who can go one-on-one, and they like to spread the floor in a high post set and create driving lanes or get the ball inside or outside to their excellent big man, Chad Prewitt, who pretty much controls the offense for this club. I remember when Chad first signed with the Sun Devils, there were a lot of people who questioned whether he was good enough to get a scholarship. Now, he's competing for all-conference honors.
The Sun Devils are a good candidate for a zone. They are hitting just 33% of their 3s for the season (8th in the Pac-10), and rely on dribble penetration and passes into the paint to generate points. That's the second key to this game: If UCLA's 1-2-2 matchup can control the paint, ASU has not shown the perimeter shooting to win this game. That doesn't mean they can't get hot, but it would be a fluke. ASU does have some guys who can explode to the ball, so UCLA will have to find a way to minimize the Sun Devils' offensive rebounding against the matchup. That's the third and final key to this game.
Chad is a 6-9 240 SR C out of Phoenix. He has red hair and a sweet J out to 3 (16.9 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 56.5% FGs, 76.9% FTs, 31.2% FTs), as well as a variety of back to the basket scoring moves. If Dan Gadzuric had Chad's skills, or if Chad had Dan's size, you'd have the best post player in the country. Chad is smaller than Dan, and in a zone UCLA seems to have a good shot at neutralizing ASU's big gun by fronting him, though Chad might step out and fire in Js. He isn't a good shotblocker, and the Bruins will try to attack him when they break the ASU pressure.
Tommie Smith, 6-9 215 JR PF (11.9 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 1.3 spg, 1.1 bpg, 51.4% FGs. 56% FTs, 37.5% 3s), remains a mostly sleeping giant for this club. Many observers feel that Tommie could be a first round NBA Draft pick if he played with more intensity and focus, but midway through his JR year is pretty deep into a career to still be waiting for the fire to be lit. He's an agile, athletic big man with some wing skills, and he's capable of getting 20/10 on a given night. Then again, he might go for 5/5. His play could determine the outcome of the game.
ASU starts 3 guards, as befits a fullcourt pressure team. Kenny Crandall, 6-3 195 SO SG (7.6 ppg, 80% FTs, 47.3% 3s), Curtis Millage, 6-2 175 JR SG (13.5 ppg, 2.4 apg, 1.7 spg, 49.3% FGs, 73.5% FTs, 31.7% 3s) and Jason Braxton, 6-2 180 FR PG (3.6 ppg, 1.3 apg, 35.1% FGs, 37.5% FTs, 40% 3s) currently comprise the starting lineup. Kenny is the team's only big-time threat from downtown. He's a tough, savvy player just returned from a Mormon mission, and he has some PG skills as well. Curtis went to Manual Arts in Los Angeles before becoming an All-State JC player, and he's a cat-quick one-on-one artist who scores much more in transition and off short Js into the lane than he does from way outside, but his 3-point shooting has improved a lot against a series of zones over the last 3 weeks. Curtis gets great elevation on his J and most college guards can't collar him straight up. Jason is another jet-quick player from So Cal (Canyon Springs High in Moreno Valley). He was more of a 2 than a 1 in h.s. and has struggled making the adjustment to the point in college so far, but he can get hot from 3 and really pushes the ball up the floor in transition.
Kyle Dodd, 6-0 175 JR PG (4.2 ppg, 2.7 apg), out of Brea Olinda High in Brea, CA, was the holdover at the point and has started for most of the season. He's a superb leaper who also gets great lift on his J, but he doesn't push the ball up or play pressure d as well as Jason. Donnell Knight, 6-7 200 JR SG/SF (3.9 ppg, 2.7 rpg) is another hyper-athletic wing who simply hasn't played the kind of d necessary to get more consistent PT. Donnell can get red-hot from 3 and could be a surprise in this game. He was rated a top 50 h.s. player nationally by many observers. Shawn Redhage, 6-7 225 JR SF (4.6 ppg, 1.7 rpg) is another wing. He's got a solid midrange J, but his time has decreased this year due to both a lack of foot speed and Evan's decision to go deep into his bench to sustain his pressure defense.
Awvee Storey, 6-6 225 SR PF (6.8 ppg, 4.7 rpg) remains an athletic, undersized post player who gets an "A" for effort. He is very quick to the ball and a real warrior, and he could be the player who comes through for ASU and grabs a lot of offensive rebounds against UCLA. Chris Osborne, 6-9 240 JR C (2.0 ppg, 0.8 rpg), who played at Westchester High, has been limited by injuries, but he gives ASU some beef inside, if not a lot of skills. Justin Allen, 6-7 225 SO PF (1.6 ppg) is a skilled banger who can nail the outside shot. He's fought his way back from Hodgkin's Disease to become part of the team's regular rotation.
So, ASU goes 11 deep and they can go deeper if they want. UCLA will need to use Ced Bozeman and the other FR to keep the older players fresh and to help break the Sun Devils' press. If the Bruins can minimize their turnovers, score off some breaks and run their offense efficiently, they should be able to put up a lot of points against this squad. ASU likes to run the other way, and they make a lot of unforced errors themselves (16.2 turnovers per game). The Bruins might show some press of their own to encourage that tendency, and then they will fall back into their 1-2-2 matchup zone.
Gadzuric will front the post again, so it will be easier for him to step up and provide a shotblocking presence if ASU penetrates into the lane. Matt Barnes can roam inside and out and will likely front Tommie Smith if Tommie tries to post up when Chad moves up high. As the Bruins' zone has evolved, Matt seems to have found a new way of exploiting his court sense and ability to cover a lot of ground in a short period of time, just as he did with the press last season, and he is well-suited to this kind of defense. The UCLA guards, of course, will be slower than their counterparts, but taller as well, and they will try to use the reluctance of some of ASU's players to pull the string on the 3 to overplay passing lanes and try to double-team a player like Millage to force the ball out of his hands. If Crandall, Millage and Braxton want to heave it, they will have to do so over 6-4 Billy, 6-4 Rico, 6-7 Ced, 6-7 Dijon and 6-7 Jason.
Hopefully, UCLA will take care of the ball, ASU won't go crazy from 3 and the Bruins will be able to keep the Sun Devils off the offensive glass. If this happens, UCLA will win, and possibly win by double figures. However, ASU is a far cry from being a walkover. They are the only team to beat the Oregon Ducks in conference this year, and they are very tough on their home court. They have UCLA beat in the quickness department at almost every spot on the floor, and they have 3 guys in Prewitt, Smith and Millage who can pour in 20 points on a given night. Indeed, if ASU sweeps UCLA and USC, they are in the hunt for an NCAA berth…
ASU should win this game, despite UCLA's lofty ranking.
But my gut tells me to go with the Bruins.
Prediction: UCLA 85, Arizona State 78.