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February 21, 2010Opportunities like the one Arizona State has Sunday haven't come often. In fact, they almost never have.
You have to go back a decade to 1999-2000 to find a time the Sun Devils were 8-5 or better in the Pac-10 heading into a road game at Arizona late in the season. They lost that year and went 2-3 to finish league play, missing the NCAA Tournament as a result.
ASU's only team to win in Tucson in a late season game in the last quarter century was its 1994-95 squad, which eventually went on to a NCAA Sweet-16 berth. But that team won with the Wildcats sitting several key players due to suspension and it still took double overtime to do it.
With the Pac-10 quite mediocre this year relative to other high major conferences, it seems Cal is the lone strong at-large candidate, with ASU and Washington the only longshot possibilities. All others have to win the conference tournament to gain admission.
But the Sun Devils (18-8; 8-5) likely need to win four of their final five regular season conference games to have a somewhat reasonable chance and so Sunday's game against the Wildcats (13-12; 7-6) is more significant than most, no matter what their coach Herb Sendek -- a man who proclaims to never value one game more than the next -- says in his weekly media comments.
Sendek's players though have no problem expressing their thoughts on the significance of the game, particularly in light of the whooping they took at the hands of the Wildcats Jan. 23 in Tempe, when they lost 77-58.
"You're guaranteed to go [to the NCAA Tournament] if you win a conference championship, and that's what we're trying to do," ASU junior Ty Abbott said.
"We don't want to put it in the (selection) committee's hands. We want to control our own destiny. With a win at Arizona we'll be able to carry that momentum to the other road games, and that will really help us achieve that goal."
After giving up 52 points in the second half of the loss to UA at Wells Fargo -- The Wildcats made 75 percent of their field goal attempts in the period -- ASU's players know they have to defend better if they're going to have a chance in what will be a typically hostile McKale Center.
"They beat us off the dribble from all five spots," senior guard Derek Glasser said. "Basically to beat them we're going to have to guard the ball better. We didn't guard the ball well at all the first game. That's how they hurt us is dribble penetration and it's no secret, they saw the same tape we did and I'm sure they're going to try to do the same thing because it worked pretty well. So we're going to have to be ready.
"Derrick Williams really hurt us in the paint and that's something we'll have to do differently is really cut out Derrick Williams. He played a phenomenal game against us and Nic Wise is their heart so we'll have to try to do a better job against him."
The Sun Devils will get a boost defensively in their matchup zone from junior guard Jamelle McMillan, who didn't play in the first game due to a sore foot.
"He does so much for us," Abbott said of McMillan. "He'll play on the wing and if Derek needs a break he'll come up and play on the point. It's kind of hard to find that versatility with somebody that can do both positions because they're not really similar positions. There's two completely different things you have to do and Jamelle does a good job of balancing that and giving us his all with that."
Additionally, there is a sense among ASU's coaches and players that an inability to make shots that were not much different from their typical looks at the basket contributed to the blowout loss.
"There were so many open shots that we missed," Abbott said. "It doesn't come down to being rushed or anything like that, we just missed a lot of open shots and I think it just comes down to us playing with poise how we do in practice because we work on hitting open shots, or contested shots for that matter. It comes down to us calming down and playing like we know how to play."
ASU's players seem to think they'll be able to handle the adversity of playing in one of the toughest road environments in the country.
"I think guys are really ready to play," Glasser said. "You can tell with their attitudes in practice and their demeanors on and off the court. I think that we're going to be ready to go and it's going to be a much better game than it was up here, that's for sure."
A win would keep the Sun Devils in close sight of Cal, with a road trip to the Bay Area on top later in the week. It's three-game trip ASU figures to have to do well on in order to have a realistic shot at making the NCAA Tournament without needing to win the conference tournament in several weeks.
"I like to play on the road," Abbott said. "I like when people are against you because when you come out on top it makes it that much better. You win on the road and you feel like you went into war with 12 guys against 15,000 and you came out on top."
A road win Sunday in Tucson would no doubt feel even better than most rivalry wins for the Sun Devils considering few such match-ups in Pac-10 history have had much bearing on their chances in the conference race this late in the season.