The Trojans are a lock to go to the NCAA Tournament, and the team got more good news Tuesday when Tim Floyd reiterated that he will not be leaving USC to take the LSU job. Now the team can concentrate on the business at hand: competing in the Pac-10 Tournament. At this point, most brackets have the Trojans as a six seed. In my opinion, they can move up as high as a four with three wins, and can drop to a seven or eight with a loss to ASU.
A loss would be a big deal, because it would mean playing a tougher team in the first round, and playing a one or a two in the second round. Personally, I'd rather play a team like Wisconsin, Xavier, Notre Dame, Vandy, or UConn in round two than a team like Memphis, Kansas, Tennessee, Duke or Georgetown. That makes this game crucial. The game is even bigger for the Sun Devils, who are squarely on the bubble after the losses of Gonzaga, South Alabama, and VCU. USC is going to get ASU's best shot.
What Happened In Game One
The Sun Devils fought and scratched for about thirty minutes before the wheels fell off. A 15-2 Trojan run at that point gave USC an 11 point lead that they never came close to relinquishing. The Trojans cruised to a 67-53 win. O.J. Mayo led the way with 20 points, and Taj Gibson chipped in with 19 points and seven rebounds. Davon Jefferson notched himself a double double as well. James Harden paced ASU with 26 points on eight of nine shooting, and Jeff Pendergraph had 10 points.
What Happened In Game Two
The game was tied at 25 at the half, but USC lost its poise and melted down early in the second stanza, going on to lose 80-66. The Trojans put some wind in ASU's sails by collecting two technical fouls: one from Tim Floyd and one from Jefferson. USC fell behind by as many as 22 points, only to storm to within nine as Mayo put on a three point show, and ended up with 37 points. The Devils made their free throws down the stretch to sew up the victory. Mayo had an oustanding day, but no one else reached double figures for USC. Meanwhile, Harden had another big game with 24 points on seven of eight shooting, and Pendergraph had 21.
A Refresher Course On The Sun Devils
Under coach Herb Sendek, ASU is the kind of team that likes to grind it out. On offense, they run a variation of the Princeton sets, which relies on a high post player to distribute, while the wings make backdoor cuts, take the ball to the basket, or shoot threes. The Devils will move Pendergraph down low though to do some damage there. He is the team's only true post player, and he can face up and hit from fifteen feet as well. ASU's weapon is Harden, who can take the ball to the basket and is also his team's best three point shooter.
Their other players are just guys. Ty Abbott averages 10 a game, but he doesn't wow you. Derek Glasser is more distributor than scorer, and he is streaky from behind the arc. Jerren Shipp is not nearly as good as either of his brothers. Eric Boateng, a heavily recruited player, has been a bust. But the whole is greater than the sum of parts with the Sun Devils, and they are patient for the most part in their offensive sets.
On defense, they almost exclusively run a 2-3 zone. They will tinker with the alignment some: at times stretching the zone to get to perimeter guys, and at other times packing it in. They have been very effective with their brand of defense. Only Stanford and USC held teams to lower field goal percentages in conference play.
Why Did USC Win Game One?
The first game featured an SC team that did almost everything right. They were patient offensively, which led to a shooting percentage of 51% despite a mediocre night from behind the arc. They held the Sun Devils to 40% shooting on the day. They outrebounded ASU by eight, and forced 17 turnovers. They were aggresive in going to the basket, garnering 27 foul shots. The only things that they did wrong: they turned the ball over 14 times, and they only made 63% of those free throws. It should also be noted that Harden was in foul trouble early, and that affected the Sun Devils offensively.
Why Did ASU Win Game Two?
The Devils got off to a quick start, but the Trojans answered and even led in the second half. Then the barn caught on fire. A technical foul by Floyd helped ignite a 28-6 run that effectively ended the game. Arizona State was more aggressive in the second contest, attacking the basket more in the second half, and netting 39 free throws, with 36 coming in the second half. USC shot a respectable 44%, and went off from behind the arc at 48%. They even outrebounded ASU. But that wasn't enough, because the Trojans allowed the Devils to shoot 51%, and the free throw disparity (39-11) kept the game from being close. This time, it was USC who couldn't take care of the ball with 18 turnovers. Mayo had a huge effort, but the Trojans could not overcome th lack of balanced scoring, as no one else cracked eight.
Who Will Win The Third Time Around?
The first two games were classic Pac-10 splits, with the home team playing better. This will be a "neutral" site game, with the Trojans having the advantage of the game being played in Los Angeles. That is no small edge, especially when you consider the teams' records away from home. USC is 10-5 away from the Galen Center, and 3-1 in neutral site games. They defeated Miami of Ohio, San Diego, and Southern Illinois: all in the RPI's top 100. Their lone loss came to Memphis in OT in a game they should have won.
Arizona State, on the other hand, has struggled away from home with a record of 6-7. They are 2-1 at neutral site games, but without any impressive wins. They beat on a poor Princeton team, barely beat a bad LSU team in overtime, and got pummelled by Illinois, who is 13-18. Their best road win: over a bubble Arizona team. Their losses away from home came by 23, 15, 15, 33, 14, 12, and 6.
There is a very small margin for error in this game for ASU. They will likely not get the kind of free throw disparity that they enjoyed in the last game. It is also likely that they are going to get outrebounded for a third time. So the Sun Devils must do a few things to win. First, they must continue to take the ball to the basket, as they did in the second half of game two. Second, they have to win the turnover margin battle. If they have a poor game in that respect, they will be sunk. Third, they need to find a third scorer in the game. Harden will get his, and Pendergraph will likely be in double digits. But the main difference between the two games: the supporting cast. In game one, the rest of the team shot 6-27. In game two, they were only 7-20, but they chipped in 16 more points on free throws.
The Trojans have the upper hand here. It's hard to believe that USC will play another game where only one player is in double digits and where the other team shoots 39 free throws. This time, I think you'll see the Trojans be more aggressive against the zone, and it will pay dividends for guys like Jefferson and Dwight Lewis. It's possible that ASU will bottle up Gibson with their zone, but if other guys pick up the slack, it won't matter. I look for the Trojans to crash the offensive glass more, and for their transition defense to be far better than it was in game two. Many of the free throws were set up by poor transition defense. With USC's defense, it will be hard for ASU to win a game that is a halfcourt grinder.
Mayo will have another big game, Jefferson will rise to the challenge, and ASU will press because so much pressure is on them to win to get to the tournament. This time, Harden misses more than one shot, the Trojans win the turnovers battle, and the lack of firepower that ASU has catches up with them.
Trojans-68, Sun Devils-60
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