January 19, 2009

Win over UCLA puts ASU in enviable position

For those fans still attempting to gain perspective on the significance of No. 16 Arizona State's 61-58 overtime win on the road at No. 9 UCLA Saturday, consider the following:

  • UCLA is the three-time defending Pac-10 champion

  • UCLA had won 15 straight home games prior to Saturday's contest.

  • ASU had not beaten UCLA in eight tries.

  • ASU had not beaten a Top-10 opponent on a road since 1998.

  • One of the top shooting teams in the country, ASU made just 3-of-17 3-point attempts in the game and went 0-of-8 from long range in the second half.

  • ASU won despite starters Rihards Kuksiks, Ty Abbott and Derek Glasser shooting a combined 2-of-15 from the field in the game.

  • ASU won despite getting just seven points from its bench.

  • UCLA did not score a field goal in the final eight minutes of regulation, as ASU rallied from a 54-43 deficit to tie the game and send it into overtime on James Harden's two made free throws with 22 seconds left in regulation. Put another way, the Sun Devils went on an 11-0 run just to make it to the extra period.

    As impressive as all of the aforementioned appears, it's also important to point out that UCLA isn't nearly as good as it had been in recent years. A legitimate Top-10 team? Probably not. The Bruins don't have much in the way of inside scoring and a lot of their talent is young and/or inexperienced.

    There probably isn't a true Top-10 caliber team in the league, so the win, while important and significant, isn't as impressive as it probably appears on the surface based on UCLA's recent history. In all reality, ASU's team this season is probably on par with UCLA or very close to it.

    What the win does is give ASU a quality road win as it will be perceived by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee in March, and also give it a split on the two toughest road trips in the Pac-10, the Bay Area and Los Angeles.

    If we were to measure which Pac-10 teams have had the toughest schedule to this point, ASU and Arizona would be the top two in that category, and following Wednesday's game between the two teams in Tucson, ASU will have played the toughest schedule through seven games. And at worst, it will have a winning record, at 4-3 through that stretch. At best, it's sitting at 5-2.

    The notion of a 5-2 start to Pac-10 play for the Sun Devils with road games against UCLA, USC, Cal, Stanford and Arizona out of the way would probably make Herb Sendek's squad the team to beat in the Pac-10, even as it would be trailing in the real standings.

    The reason? ASU would have the easiest remaining schedule of any team in the league with 11 games to go. There is a strong likelihood that no team in the Pac-10 this year will do better than 14-4, so at 5-2 with 11 games remaining, ASU would legitimately be able to compete for the Pac-10 Championship, an unthinkable possibility just two years ago.

    After playing Arizona Wednesday, the Sun Devils host the Washington schools, which should both be wins baring an upset. So it's conceivable ASU could be 7-2 at the halfway point, and that would be with the tougher half of its schedule out of the way.

    At worst, we would expect the Sun Devils to be 6-3 at the halfway point, and even that would be a remarkable achievement.

    It's too early to make end-season projections, but that's not going to stop us.

    At this stage, our best guess is that the most realistic scenario puts ASU at 13-5 plus or minus one win. Anything worse than 12-6 at this juncture would be a disappointment based on how the schedule has gone to date. 14-4? It's not out of the question, especially if ASU can win its next three games.

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