February 10, 2008

Sweep significant on many levels for ASU

Arizona State had lost 12 straight games to geographical rival Arizona before its 64-59 overtime win on Jan. 9 at Wells Fargo Arena. On Sunday, a new streak began, as the Sun Devils surged back from an early 22-6 deficit to outscore the Wildcats 48-19 over a 27-plus minute stretch and held on to win, 59-54 at McKale Center in Tucson.

Now, it's 2-0.

Freshman Jerryd Bayless was sensational for the Wildcats, scoring 16 points on 5-of-5 shooting in the first eight minutes and totaling 39 points in the game. But there was no support from his teammates, who went 3-for-23 from the field, including Chase Budinger's 1-of-12.

The Sun Devils survived the big early run by the Wildcats and then systematically dismantled the team's man-to-man defense with a seemingly never-ending series of slip screens and back-door cuts that led to one field goal after another from point blank range including a plethora of dunks by Jeff Pendergraph.

Pendergraph scored a career-high 29 points on 12-of-16 shooting, and was a major force in the middle defensively for a team that limited it's opponents' frontcourt to one field goal in the paint. Jordan Hill, who had a double-double against ASU in Tempe, went 1-of-3 from the field for six points and seven rebounds.

Freshman guard James Harden battled a virus all week and did not start for the Sun Devils, who replaced him in the lineup with classmate Rihards Kuksiks. Harden played 33 minutes, but did not look to get particularly involved offensively, and finished with just five points on 1-of-5 shooting.

Not having Harden in top shape made the win all the more impressive for the Sun Devils, who dominated the game in every facet after sustaining the initial punch from Arizona.

Though they started Pac-10 play 4-0, after losing five straight Pac-10 games, the Sun Devils appeared to be on the verge of being eliminated from serious post-season NCAA Tournament discussion. A loss against Arizona would have put the team 4-6 in league play with an RPI in the 80s and games against UCLA, Stanford and at Washington State remaining. It would have been difficult to imagine a scenario in which ASU rebounded to win five of its final eight games to put it in contention for such a bid.

Now however, ASU has one more high qualify win against a top-20 RPI opponent and a season sweep of Arizona to hang its hat on. Granted, Arizona played its first game against the Sun Devils without the services of Bayless, and it's second without point guard Nic Wise, who had knee surgery recently, but it all counts the same in the season standings.

Perhaps most impressive about the win over UA was how the Sun Devils not only persevered, but managed to maintain their composure on the road in a difficult place to play, and in spite of a five-game losing steak in conference play.

Even with four freshmen playing 97 game minutes, the Sun Devils executed at a very high level at both ends of the floor throughout the majority of the game.

UA coach Kevin O'Neill is not a fan of using zone defense and even as the Sun Devils dismantled the Wildcats' man-to-man time and again in the second half, there were not clear adjustments that were made. Also problematic for the home team was the fact that UA had no timeouts remaining for the final 11:48.

In recent weeks, opponents have had significant success double teaming Pendergraph with two frontcourt players, but with the ability to make plays in space, the Sun Devil junior was outstanding.

Sophomore Derek Glasser had an excellent game, tallying eight assists, most of which came in a two-man game with Pendergraph sliding to the basket off the high screen. Glasser also made 4-of-9 from the field and had nine points.

Jerren Shipp was the only other double-figure scorer for the Sun Devils, with 11 points on 4-of-6 from the field. He had a number of point-blank looks at the basket off the Princeton-hybrid offense that worked so successfully for the visitor.

The win not only secured the season sweep from the Wildcats for the first time since 1994-95, and ended a five game Pac-10 losing streak, it brought the team to .500 in Pac-10 play with eight games remaining and improved its RPI into the mid-70s.

Next on the docket is a home game against Stanford on Feb. 14, a team that found itself in a first-place tie with UCLA in the Pac-10 after the Bruins were upset at Washington in other Sunday action.

It figures the Sun Devils will need to win five of their final eight to be a likely NCAA Tournament team. A 4-4 record to close would certainly give it a legitimate case to be included, particularly if it finishes with the same record, or better conference record than the Wildcats, despite the team's much-better RPI.

The sweep over UA does a lot for the Sun Devils. It gives them a psychological boost heading into the final four weeks of conference play. It is a statment to young recruits watching what is going on with both programs, particularly young, in-state targets.

But most importantly, it tells a program that played four freshmen extensively that being in close games regularly, and winning often versus a historically dominate opponent is something that can not only be hoped for.

It is now expected.

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