January 21, 2009

ASU rare favorite in road game at Arizona

Fresh off its impressive overtime win at UCLA last Saturday, Arizona State finds itself facing another tough road assignment, with a game at Arizona tonight at 7:30 p.m.

The Wildcats may not be as impressive as historically has been the case, but at 11-7 (2-4 in the Pac-10), their record may be a bit deceiving. Three of those losses came by just one point, including Saturday's 65-64 defeat at the hands of USC Saturday, in a game Arizona should have at least sent into overtime.

Arizona has a strong trio of players in center Jordan Hill, wing forward Chase Budinger and point guard Nic Wise, and the team remains capable of beating just about any opponent on any day, as evidenced by its blowout 84-67 win at Kansas on Dec. 23.

Hill, in particular, will likely present a difficult challenge for the Sun Devils' zone defense. He's the leading rebounded in the Pac-10, and he's a dominant scorer on the low block, with averages of 17.8 points and 11.4 rebounds her game.

With the way ASU rotates it's zone defense, Hill will often find himself working against -- even if just for a brief period before being doubled teamed -- a much shorter defender, primarily Rihards Kuksiks.

If he's able to do a lot of damage on the offensive interior, Hill could get Kuksiks and/or Jeff Pendergraph in foul trouble. Either scenario would be a bit hit to ASU, which is talented at the top, but significantly diminished when those players not available when needed.

"[Hill] can be a human highlight film," ASU coach Herb Sendek said Tuesday. "He and [University of Oklahoma forward] Blake Griffin have the most double-doubles in the country. To me, Jordan Hill has to be in that conversation."

After sweeping the Wildcats last year for the first time since 1994-95, and with an impressive 15-3 (4-2 Pac-10) start, the Sun Devils find themselves in an unusual position going into a game in Tucson. They are favored by 2.5 points, and for the first time seemingly in decades, are considered the better team, perhaps even the better program.

In recent years, it has seemed as though all the pressure has been on ASU going into this road game at Tucson. Often times, there wasn't even a belief that ASU could win, much less would win. This season, it feels like that has totally flipped. Arizona is under-water in the Pac-10, and with a mind-bending streak of 24 consecutive NCAA appearances, that's a bad place to be. The Wildcats desperately need to get climb back toward .500 in the league, and what better way than to earn a "quality win" against a ranked ASU team.

It's not going to be an easy task. The Sun Devils are among the most efficient teams in the country on offense, and their zone defense is difficult to prepare for, especially in a shortened practice week with a Wednesday game.

Teams that have had the most success defending James Harden have used man-to-man defenses, denying him the basketball, and especially keeping him from it in the places that ASU likes to initiate its offense from, most prominently the right wing. But Arizona runs a zone.

If the Wildcats aren't able to keep Harden from breaking down their zone and creating open shots for teammates along the perimeter, it's going to be difficult to keep ASU from earning its third consecutive win in the series.

Their only chance will be if Budinger and Wise shoot the ball extremely well from the outside, and Hill goes off with a big scoring night in the paint.

Additionally, second chance opportunities for Arizona could prove to be a big stat to follow in this game. Hill is terrific on the glass, but there isn't much behind him in that area. If he ends up collecting a lot of offensive rebounds, something that ASU has struggled with at times, it'll provide a big boost to the home team's chances.

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