Game of the Week: Washington State at Arizona State

January 25th, 2008

Game of the Week: No. 6 Washington State at No. 24 Arizona State (Saturday, 7:00 PM, Regional TV)

As we get closer to January, we are, of course, also nearing one of the most exciting times in sports – the stretch run of the college basketball season. It means plenty of things, but most of all it means there will be lots of bubble talk, conference title races, key intra-conference match-ups, and NCAA Tournament discussion. It also means important games every night between either top teams in the conference, or between two teams trying to keep pace in the at-large hunt. There is no shortage of games like that this weekend, including a Big East showdown when Georgetown heads to West Virginia, a couple of interesting SEC battles (finally), and two huge non-conference match-ups. However, the best of them all will be one between two programs that were irrelevant before last season – Washington State at Arizona State. Neither team likes to play fast-paced basketball at all; they both rank in the bottom 20 of the country in tempo. Will any team in the nation want to play either of them in March, though? Not a chance.

Washington State Team Breakdown

Washington State came out of nowhere last season to make a run at the Pac-10 title and eventually earned a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament before bowing out in the second round. The Cougars have continued their stellar play this season, sitting in a tie for second place at 4-2 in the conference, and 16-2 overall. They own road wins over Washington, USC, Baylor and Gonzaga and a home victory over Oregon. The only losses were on the road at UCLA and Arizona. The Cougars play outstanding defense and force teams to play at one of the slowest paces in the country. They are ranked No. 11 in defensive efficiency and No. 15 in offensive efficiency.

The Cougars are led by their outstanding backcourt of Kyle Weaver and Derrick Low. Weaver is one of the best defenders in the country and has the ability to create match-up problems at both ends of the floor with his size and length. Low has been compared by some to Steve Nash, and he is a high-energy player that always seems to be around the ball. He can create his own shot, and is also adept at finding his teammates. Taylor Rochestie also starts in a three-guard lineup. He is a very good three-point shooter and passer who doesn’t make too many mistakes. He can finish in the lane with runners and tough-to-block lay-ups. Nikola Kiprovica comes off the bench.

Up front, 6-10 junior center Aron Baynes has made a huge impact due to his vast improvement since last season. He is the team’s leading rebounder and second-leading scorer, and provides the Cougars with a legit inside presence that they didn’t get on a consistent basis last year. Robbie Cowgill is another efficient big man. He rebounds and defends well, and doesn’t commit unnecessary fouls. Daven Harmeling will come off the bench. He is an inside-out threat who can shoot the three consistently. Caleb Forrest also sees minutes.

Arizona State Team Breakdown

Arizona State is like this year’s version of 2007 Washington State. The Sun Devils were projected to finish near the bottom of the Pac-10, but have been one of the most improved teams in the country. They currently are in a tie for second in the conference with a 4-2 record, and an impressive 14-4 overall mark. ASU has wins over Xavier, Arizona and Oregon at home, as well as a victory over California on the road. However, one potential concern is that all four losses have come by double-figures. Like Washington State, Arizona State plays at a slow pace but is extremely efficient offensively and can control the game. The Sun Devils rank No. 19 in offensive efficiency and No. 70 in defensive efficiency.

Leading the way for the Sun Devils has been superstar freshman James Harden. The 6-5 swingman has been one of the best newcomers in the country, putting up outstanding numbers on a nightly basis. Furthermore, he has stepped up his play since conference games began, scoring at least 20 points in each of the first four Pac-10 contests. Joining him on the wing is fellow freshman Ty Abbott. He is a good three-point shooter and scorer who needs to develop some consistency as his career progresses. In the Sun Devils’ four-guard lineup, Jerren Shipp and Derek Glasser also start. Shipp does a little of everything and can knock down shots, while Glasser is a very solid point guard who takes care of the ball at an unbelievable rate. His assist-to-turnover ratio is nearly four-to-one. Christian Polk sees minutes off the bench, although he hasn’t played in three of the last four games. Jamelle McMillan backs up at the point.

Arizona State usually utilizes four perimeter players and one big man on the floor. Luckily for the Sun Devils, their big man is one of the best in the conference. Jeff Pendergraph is one of the most efficient post players in the country and is an outstanding offensive rebounder. Furthermore, he makes an impact defensively, blocking shots on a consistent basis. Prior to a disappointing performance against Stanford because of foul trouble, Pendergraph was averaging 19.6 points and 8.1rebounds in his previous seven games. Former Duke transfer Erik Boateng backs him up inside. He provides decent production at both ends of the floor.

Game Analysis and Prediction

If you like scoring, this game isn’t for you. As mentioned before, both teams love to slow the game down and play in the half-court. Therefore, expect both teams to take care of the ball and limit mistakes, and the final result will likely be in the 50s or low 60s. Arizona State has allowed more than 65 points just five times this season, while Washington State has given up more than 65 points on only three occasions all season. Both teams have plenty of solid perimeter players and a go-to-guy down low, and rely on terrific balance and offensive execution to get their points. One of the best individual match-ups in the Pac-10 will also be on display in Tempe on Saturday night as ASU’s James Harden, an outstanding scorer who can get points against anyone, will be defended by Washington State’s Kyle Weaver, one of the best defensive players in the country. Keep an eye on the last few minutes – that’s when the game will be decided.

If Washington State is to continue its winning ways, the Cougars will need to play a lot better than they did in their last road game, when they looked very average at UCLA. Of course, many teams look average against the Bruins, so for their sake, let’s hope it was an anomaly. First, they’re going to have to contain either Harden or Jeff Pendergraph. Pendergraph got into foul trouble against Stanford, so the Cardinal were able to focus on Harden and essentially shut him down in the second half. The other options for the Sun Devils (i.e. Ty Abbott, Jerren Shipp) are not good enough to carry the offense on their own. Secondly, they have to keep Pendergraph off the offensive glass. As a whole, the Sun Devils aren’t a great offensive rebounding team but Pendergraph is one of the best in the country in that area. They can’t make it easy on the Sun Devils’ offense to score. Offensively, Washington State needs to knock down its shots. ASU allows its opposition a lot of three-point shots, so the Cougars will get opportunities. Taylor Rochestie and Daven Harmeling are consistent from outside the arc, so they will be huge factors.

On the other side, Arizona State could really make a splash on the national state with a win over the top-10 Cougars. The Sun Devils don’t really have a lot of winning experience and two of their three leading scorers are freshmen, so they could play tight early on – they will have to shake that off quickly in order to win. Specifically, Arizona State will need to take good shots when it is on offense. Washington State doesn’t force a lot of turnovers or block a lot of shots, but they force teams to take difficult and contested shots throughout the game. A couple of quick shots by ASU with no one underneath to rebound could lead to a big run from WSU, which is exactly what the Sun Devils don’t need. Secondly, the Sun Devils’ secondary options are going to have to step-up. Washington State does a great job of taking away teams’ primary scoring threats (Harden and Pendergraph), so guys like Ty Abbott, Jerren Shipp and Derek Glasser will need to score if given the opportunity. Defensively, Arizona State has to be patient and not commit unnecessary fouls. Washington State will milk the shot-clock if that’s what it takes to get an open shot in its offense. WSU has a variety of scoring options so ASU can’t really key-in on anyone in particular. The Cougars are also phenomenal from the free-throw line so ASU will have to be careful not to reach-in or bail them out with a late foul.

This could be one of the best games of the early Pac-10 season. Neither team is overly explosive offensively but both teams are lock-down defensive groups who won’t give up an easy shot all night. WSU has more experience in these types of games than Arizona State, but the game will be in Tempe, which gives the Sun Devils an immediate advantage. The difference is going to be the presence of Pendergraph down low and the ability of Harden to get into the lane and make plays. Expect a tightly-contested game that goes down to the final minutes – and possibly the final possession.

Prediction: Arizona State 62, Washington State 59