Sun Devils (16-8, 6-6) at Cougars (20-5 overall, 8-5 Pac-10)
The Cougs face a desperate team tonight. While ASU’s overall record looks OK and that .500 conference mark doesn’t look terrible given that four other teams in the Pac-10 have virtually the same record, those six losses have come in the Sun Devils’ last eight games.Make no mistake about it — thanks to the Sun Devils’ middling conference record and poor road play (2-4 in just six true road games), Arizona State is squarely on the tournament bubble. Of particular dismay to ASU fans has to be Saturday’s head-scratching loss to Cal after knocking off No. 7 Stanford.
But losing streaks and inconsistent performances can happen sometimes when a team relies so heavily on young players — of the five starters, two are sophomores and two are freshman, including leading scorer James Harden (right).
Arizona State has leaned heavily on Harden, who was all over the floor in the first meeting against the Cougs, and it seems to have really taken its toll on the young man. How heavily have they leaned on him? According to kenpom.com, he “uses” 28.6 percent of ASU’s possessions when he’s in the game, which is 80 percent of the time. So, not only is he playing the most minutes on the team, more than one out of every four possessions ends with him taking some sort of shot which usually requires making some sort of move, all of which drains a player.
The result has been rough for ASU. After scoring 15 or more points in 18 of his first 20 games, he now has failed to score more than 11 points in three of the past five. His shots are down (usually a sign of a reluctance to work hard to get open), his turnovers are up and his fouls are up (also a sure sign of tired legs, especially in a zone defense). Will he want to work as hard as he’s going to need to against the WSU defense this time around, without a favorable crowd behind him to get that extra adrenaline shot? I suspect not, but we’ll see.
One big key tonight will be rebounding. Arizona State’s offense is heavily dependent on offensive rebounds and second-chance points — according to kenpom.com, the Devils have a fairly strong correlation between offensive rebounding percentage and offensive efficiency. If the Cougs rebound the way they have against the last three opponents — all wins, not coincidentally — they should be in very good shape defensively tonight.
But let me pose a couple of questions to you. Anybody notice how we dominated Oregon on the glass? Anybody notice that Aron Baynes played 34 minutes in that one? Yeah, not a coincidence, those two things. The problem, of course, is that there isn’t really any room on offense for a post-only, not-so-good-passing big man against a zone such as ASU’s — Baynes played only 20 minutes in the first contest, some of it because of foul trouble, some of it because of offensive ineffectiveness. How we rebound with if our best rebounder is playing reduced minutes again tonight will be a major key.
The guy to watch out for on that front, of course, is Jeff Pendergraph. He’s the main reason for ASU’s success on the boards — he’s 77th nationally in offensive rebounding percentage — but his inconsistencies have made him one of the bigger disappointments in the Pac-10, in my book. He’s a foul waiting to happen, and it was that foul trouble that kept him out of most of the game against the Cougs the first time around, when he played 30 minutes but was hardly effective. Pendergraph isn’t exactly a load, so look for Tony Bennett to put Robbie Cowgill on him plenty to try and combat his activity.
But while Harden and Pendergraph tend to get all the pub, don’t sleep on Ty Abbott. The freshman, who was recruited heavily by WSU (and UW) before electing to go to the hometown school, is a very good 3-point shooter. And if there’s anything that we know can bust the Cougs’ D, it’s 3s. Thankfully, the Sun Devils were unbelievably poor in that department last time. Bet your bottom dollar that Tony Bennett is making sure the Cougs know where he is on the floor at all times.
On offense, the key for the Cougs will be penetrating that zone. In the first matchup, WSU looked terrible, then very good, then terrible against it. All of it had to do with how effectively the Cougs got the ball to Kyle Weaver in the high post. Early on, they weren’t even trying; late, ASU did an outstanding job denying entry passes to him. The Cougs will want to get him the ball in that triple threat position as much as possible, and if the Sun Devils overplay the high entry as hard as they did in the second half of the last game, Bennett will have to get creative — some pass fakes and dribble drives into the gaps should do the trick.
Bottom line? This is a game ASU must have, but I see two teams going in opposite directions. I think the Cougs handle and frustrate a young, tiring team to a relatively comfortable win.