Sun Devil Preview

At this time of the year, the next game is always your biggest, but in terms of post-season ramifications, the ASU game tonight at Pauley Pavilion is truly big. And once again, it's all about defense...

Head Coach Ben Howland said that, at this point in the season, the next game is always "the biggest game of the season."

He's definitely right about the Arizona State game tonight at Pauley Pavilion.

UCLA is 6-5 in the Pac-10 (tied with Stanford) and ASU is 5-6, with all three behind Washington and Arizona, who are both 9-2. Many pundits maintain that the Pac-10 will probably get four teams in the NCAA tournament, so it could be a matter of looking back on this UCLA/ASU game on Selection Sunday in March and realize that it determined the fourth Pac-10 that received that NCAA bid.

Stanford has already beaten UCLA once and then play the Bruins at home in Palo Alto, so gaining even a split with Stanford is a long shot. If UCLA beats ASU tonight, it will have swept the Sun Devils and, barring any meltdown for the rest of the schedule, give UCLA the advantage in any Pac-10 standings tiebreaker.

Since the beginning of Pac-10 play, ASU has epitomized the term "an up and down team." They started out conference play sweeping the Bay Area schools on the road, then in the next weekend lost to both USC and UCLA in Tempe. Last week they beat Stanford at home, but then lost to Cal, giving back a 12-point first-half lead.

The erratic results tend to come from an undisciplined team that doesn't sustain very good defense for long periods of time. ASU is allowing opponents to shoot 47% from the field, and their lackluster defense was critical in keying UCLA's come-from-behind victory in Tempe, 86-82.

Another sign of being erratic is a team's excessive dependency on one player. There's a reason why basketball coaches preach balanced scoring, to safeguard against your one big scorer having a bad night, and to generally get enough players producing consistently so you can win consistently.

ASU isn't a well-balanced team, depending on its star, 6-8 junior post Ike Diogu for big production. And Diogu has answered the call lately, being named Pac-10 Player of the Week, scoring a whopping 39 and 35 points against the Bay Area schools last weekend. He was a monster in those games. Not only was he nearly unstoppable in the block, it was almost magical the way just about any shot he put up from anywhere on the floor went in. He also had 18 rebounds in those two games and had four blocks.

It's one of the most interesting matchups yet this season – between the hot, hard-charging Diogu and a team that kept him relatively under wraps in its first meeting, UCLA. Diogu, who is averaging 22 points a game, was held to just 15 points, on 6-of-16 shooting. UCLA did it primarily with very effective doubling, bring over a second defender to trap him almost immediately after he caught the ball. It was particularly effective when Diogu caught the ball on the baseline while, through the course of the game, ASU was starting him out more in the middle of the paint to give him room to maneuver around the double team.

The thing is, whether Diogu gets his 22 or more, it doesn't seem to really impact whether ASU wins or not. In the five Pac-10 games when Diogu scored less than his game average, ASU is 2-3, and it's 3-3 in games when he scored his average or more. Last week against Cal he had 35 points and ASU lost.

Of course, you don't want Diogu going off for 40 against you, but it's pretty evident that how the rest of the Sun Devil squad performs against you tends to be the bigger determining factor.

And it really isn't that much about how the rest of the Sun Devils perform offensively, as much as how they play defensively. In other words, if Diogu can get his numbers and the Sun Devils play well defensively, they're then tough to beat. They limited Stanford to 43% from the field, but allowed Cal to shoot almost 60%. On successive weekends, ASU allowed the Bay Area schools to shot just 41% and won both games, but then allowed the SoCal schools to shoot 52% and lost both.

Offensively for the Sun Devils the guy that has really been a stake through the heart has been Kevin Kruger, the 6-2 sophomore sharpshooter. He's averaging 11 points per game, and he's very good at finding a small seam for a good open look from three that will really hurt an opponent at a critical time. Even though Steve Moore, the 6-4 senior wing, can get hot from the outside, he's not near as clutch as Kruger. Bryson Krueger, the 6-6 small forward, has been starting for the second half of the season, mostly because he gives the Sun Devils some size and defense, which they obviously need. But Kevin Kruger, coming off the bench, is getting more minutes than either Krueger or Moore lately because of his offensive effectiveness.

Serge Angounou is a 6-8 power forward who's also been up and down this season. He'll have a game where he gets 20, and then come back for the next game and score just 4. He is a good rebounder, averaging over 8 a game in his last five games.

Jason Braxton, the 6-2 senior point guard, is one of the best athletes in the Pac-10, and is a challenge for UCLA's freshman point guard Jordan Farmar because of his quickness. Luckily Braxton's skill level has never caught up with his athleticism.

Overall, ASU is a pretty athletic team, the type, though, that UCLA has matched up pretty well with all year. The athletic teams in the Pac-10 tend to rely too much on their athleticism, going one-on-one excessively on offense while getting lazy in their team defense. UCLA's more disciplined style has been able to exploit it, especially when UCLA itself played good defense.

This game, truly, is all about defense (the defense mantra is sounding monotonous, I know, but it's true). It's about whether UCLA can exploit ASU if they're playing lethargic defense. In its first meeting UCLA was able to get a good number of points in transition against the slow-to-get-back Sun Devils. And it's also about UCLA's defense. They played two good defensive games recently, one that was critical in beating WSU and critical in helping the Bruins stay in the game against Washington. In its first meeting, UCLA kept ASU to 41% shooting from the floor. If it can keep Diogou relatively under wraps (that is, not go off for 40), but then contain Kruger's shooting and ASU's transition, UCLA should win this immensely important game.

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