The Sun Devils will try to shake off a disappointing 65-55 defeat to the Washington State Cougars Thursday night, hoping to keep their dimming Pac-10 championship hopes alive. The Huskies got a wake up call Thursday night, reverting to a team simply trying to outscore their opponents, offering little resistance on the defensive end.
All America candidate James Harden has emerged as one of the top players in the country and is a sure fire top-5 pick in next year's NBA draft. The talented lefty is nearly impossible to stop, displaying point guard-like skills with his muscular 6-foot-6 frame. He ranks among the top-10 players in the league in nearly every statistical category. He's also a deadly shooter, knocking down nearly 40 percent of his attempts from beyond the 3-point arc. Harden's talents aren't limited to the offensive end either; he's a sensational defender, currently leading Pac-10 in steals, and the captain of the ASU's highly effective 2-3 match-up zone.
Arizona State is clearly all about Harden, but Head Coach Herb Sendek has assembled a decent supporting cast around him, headlined by All Conference forward Jeff Pendergraph. The 6-foot-10 senior has been limited by nagging injuries, but remains one of the better post players in the Pac-10. On offense he's extremely efficient, shooting better than 66 percent from the floor, and is basically a less athletic version of Arizona's Jordan Hill. He's also a quality, physical defender, presenting UW's Jon Brockman with another difficult test. Pendergraph averages eight rebounds and one block per game.
After that, the talent level drops off pretty dramatically for Sendek, though a deep bench and Harden's presence mask well their deficiencies. Forward Rihard Kuksiks has become a quietly effective third scoring option for the Sun Devils, despite his 3-20 shooting from 3-point range the last two games. At 6-foot-6, he can be a mismatch for smaller guards on the perimeter, though he lacks the ability to penetrate the lane. All but 35 of his 152 field goal attempts have come from beyond the 3-point line.
Ty Abbott and Derek Glasser man the backcourt positions. Abbott, a sophomore, roared out of the gate but has been a shooting disaster of late – he's just 1-21 from beyond the arc since the start of Pac-10 play. Glasser, meanwhile, has steadily improved his production as the season has progressed. Like most of the ASU roster, he's not much of an athlete, but he's a team player and understands his role in supporting Harden.
Defense is where the Sun Devils really shine. They don't have the raw athletes to match up man-to-man, so they rely on a match up 2-3 zone, using it with incredible effectiveness. Opponents can count on just about every shot being contested: ASU holds their opponents to a miserly 31 percent from 3-point land and pride themselves on their defensive identity.
The Huskies, on the other hand, must rediscover theirs after giving up triple-digits in Tucson. Prior to the Arizona game, the Huskies had become a menace defensive end, contesting shots and pressuring opponents into mistakes - but that wasn't the case Thursday, where they turned the game into a track meet. For the Huskies to win, they have to find a way to slow Harden. You can't stop him - that's nearly impossible. Containing him will take every ounce of energy they can muster.
Washington's got a huge advantage athletically, but they've got to turn up the tempo to exploit it. As with nearly every other conference opponent, the Huskies will try to take advantage of the Sun Devils' lack of post depth, hoping to coerce Pendergaph into foul trouble. With Brockman and Matthew Bryan-Amaning occupying Pendergraph down low, Justin Dentmon, Isaiah Thomas and Venoy Overton should be able to penetrate the lane, looking for soft spots in the zone.
Like Washington State, ASU presents a challenge because of their plodding tempo. Washington doesn't do well when they aren't dictating the pace. For the Huskies to win, they'll have to force ASU to keep up with them in transition, where they can take advantage of their superior athletes.
Easier said than done.
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