ASU Preview

One of the best teams in the Pac-10, Arizona State, comes to Pauley Pavilion tonight to face a beleaguered 4-7 Bruins. The Sun Devils are a good barometer for the rest of the year...

This preview is going to be without a prediction.


This year, making predictions about who will win UCLA basketball games is similar to trying to predict earthquakes.   Even though you know where the faults are, it's impossible to foresee how the pressure will affect them.


Will the UCLA basketball team adopt an "us-against-the-world" mentality to resurrect itself as it has at times in recent years with Lavin's teams? Or are the distractions and problems with this team too much? All eyes will certainly be on Steve Lavin after the week where rumors and speculation about a possible resignation hit an all-time high. 


A very good barometer in determining whether UCLA has some of its bounce-back capability of recent years will be the Arizona State team that UCLA faces tonight.  The Sun Devils are playing very good basketball, with an 11-4 record overall, 3-1 in the Pac-10, and all the makings of a NCAA tournament team.  They're coming off two blow-out wins against the lowly Washington schools in Tempe (which isn't saying much).  Their one Pac-10 loss was against Oregon in Eugene.  It's their one loss in their last eight games.  And their other losses were pretty respectable – to 12-3 Utah, 11-4 BYU, and 12-3 Kentucky.


ASU very well could finish second in the Pac-10 behind its desert co-hort, Arizona. It's playing the second-best basketball in the conference right now.


But, again, UCLA has the talent to beat ASU.  It's really a matter if UCLA can put that talent to use, put together an effort and "fire out" for 40 minutes.


UCLA will face possibly the most talented inside player it has yet to see this season in freshman Ike Diogu. The 6-8, 240-pounder is averaging 18 points and seven boards a game. He is a big, athletic body who knows how to play on the low-block, seal off and score. He also plays hard, gets putbacks and generally pushes people around. 


UCLA hasn't done well against teams with good frontlines, and Diogu is not the only frontline problem ASU provides.  6-9 senior forward Tommy Smith could have some of the most raw talent of any player in the Pac-10. He's very thin at just about 215 pounds, but very athletic. He gets out on transition well, plays above the rim much of the time, and moves laterally really well, enabling him to guard much smaller players.  He gets much of his 10 points a game in transition or around the basket, also averaging 6.5 boards a game.  He's also a very good shot blocker, leading the conference by averaging 2.6 a game. 


Between the two of them, Diogu and Smith have everything you'd want in a front line.


Then throw in Donnell Knight, the 6-7 senior, and you have a pretty good trio. Knight was more heralded than Smith coming out of high school and has never lived up to the hype. But in his senior year, Knight is playing better, committing less fouls and turnovers, and sustaining better effort defensively.  In the Sun Devil's last game against Washington State, a 41-point win, all three of ASU's frontline players were in double figures.


But ASU is not just an inside team.  They have perhaps one of the best all-around guards in the league in Curtis Millage, a 6-2 senior. Millage is second on the team in scoring, averaging 13 points a game, which he gets mostly through mid-range jumpers, penetration, transition and garbage. He's strong and quick, and is a good defensive player. 


The other ASU starter is athletic 6-1 sophomore point guard Jason Braxton.  Braxton is still learning how to play the point, and sometimes, when he gets it, shows some big-time ability.  His size and quickness is an advantage, which he uses to overcome defenders, but he still makes mistakes and still doesn't shoot the ball well yet.


In fact, ASU's biggest deficiency is their outside shooting. They are dead last in three-point shooting in the conference, shooting just 30% on their threes. But, as an indication that they get most of their shots from within the paint, ASU, on the other hand, leads the Pac-10 in overall shooting percentage, at close to a 49% clip.  ASU pounds the ball inside. Their second option is to, well, pound the ball inside. And then their third option is to take a shot and hope for an offensive rebound so their frontline can pound the ball inside.


Their best outside shooter is a 6-6 senior that comes off the bench, Jamal Hill. He is definitely their designated zone buster. Millage, when he gets hot, can also be dangerous from three, but that hasn't happened much this year. 


Also coming off the bench and actually playing pretty effectively in just 13 minutes a game has been 6-7 senior Shawn Redhage. Redhage gets inside, mixes it up, loves to rebound, and gives ASU a boost of energy.  Senior point guard Kyle Dodd also relieves the guards. 


With quick guards and the long arms of Smith and Knight, and Diogu holding down the fort inside, ASU has gone on some game-clinching runs this year because of their defense. They have kept opponents to the lowest shooting percentage in the Pac-10, mostly because of their athleticism, quickness, and how hard they play defensively.


To win the game, UCLA will have to be smart and patient on offense. Against ASU defensively, ASU's guards are not the best ballhandlers and some UCLA fullcourt pressure could get them rattled and cause some turnovers. UCLA hasn't done well in getting defensive stops; it seems like the majority of the time when the opponent doesn't score it is due to an opponent's turnover. So, it would seem it would only play to UCLA's strength to try to force turnovers more than trying to rely on getting stops in their half-court defense.


UCLA will go to an AAU-type of substitution pattern for this game on offense, using two five-man units at a time.  One unit, the one that starts, will be Ryan Walcott, Jason Kapono, Ray Young, Andre Patterson and T.J. Cummings. The other unit will consist of Cedric Bozeman, Jon Crispin, Dijon Thompson, Josiah Johnson and Michael Fey. Each unit will alternate playing five minutes. The unit that is playing the best according to the coaches will then play the last ten minutes of the game. At least, that's the plan.


The biggest factor in determining the game is, with all of the controversy surrounding the UCLA program, will the UCLA team be able to sustain effort and focus for the entire game.


It would be very typical of recent years for UCLA to come out against ASU and beat them.


But this might not be a typical year...

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