Arizona State comes into the NCAA tournament with a 21-11 record. The Sun Devils finished the Pac-12 season in a five way tie for third place, with a 10-8 record before losing its first conference tournament game against Stanford.
The high point for Herb Sendek's team was a double overtime Valentine's Day victory over No. 1 Arizona (a game I watched from a hotel room after being stranded at DFW airport, thanks to the polar vortex). It was a 69-66 rock fight where neither team could figure out how to score down the stretch. Exciting, but not necessarily pretty.
Much like the Texas Longhorns, Arizona State comes into this game after playing through a rough stretch of the schedule. ASU has lost five of its last seven games; it is no coincidence that four of those five losses came on the road, and both wins were at home. (This story should sound familiar to Texas fans; only the very best teams in the country consistently win games on the road.)
So what can Texas expect in its first round match up?
When Arizona State has the ball
There are two key things to know about the Arizona State offense:
- Point guard Jahii Carson shoots a lot.
- When Carson, Jermaine Marshall, and Jonathan Gilling aren't hitting threes, the Sun Devils have a hard time scoring.
When Carson is on the floor, and he nearly always is, he dominates the ball. Carson takes 30 percent of his team's shots and assists on 29 percent of his teammates baskets while in the game.
Carson is terrific in transition, with an effective field goal percentage of 57 percent when he shoots within the first ten seconds of live-ball possessions, but just ordinary in the half court, with a 43 percent effective field goal percentage. At only 5-10, he struggles to finish around the rim in half court, hitting under 45 percent of his layups when attacking a set half-court defense.
The most effective half-court offense for the Sun Devils usually comes from beyond the arc. Sendek's team has hit 39 percent of its attempts from three. Marshall and Gilling do much of the shooting, while 91 of Carson's 144 assists have led to a three ball.
I would be negligent if I didn't mention 6-5 slasher Shaquielle McKissic. He is more devastating in transition, but even in the half-court he is a player who can drive the basket and get to the rim, draw a foul, or find his teammates for open threes. 40 of McKissic's assists have gone to players standing behind the arc; Carson and McKissic have set up half of the Sun Devil's threes.
Don't be surprised if we see a similar game plan used against Arizona State as the one that Texas threw against West Virginia. The Sun Devils and the Mountaineers have some similarities. Both teams rely on dynamic lead guards and surround them with dangerous shooters on the wings. Carson probably isn't the player that WVU's Juwan Staten is, although Carson is more dangerous from three.
Against West Virginia, Texas focused heavily on containing Staten's dribble penetration; limiting penetrating perimeter players' effectiveness is one of the key strengths of the Texas Longhorns. Containing Carson's penetration will cut into both his ability to draw fouls (where he can do much of his damage) as well as his ability to find open teammates with their feet set behind the arc. If Carson starts out shooting a lot of 15 foot shots off the dribble, it bodes well for the Horns.
Arizona State has one advantage that West Virginia does not have; a competent big man. 7-2 senior Jordan Bachynski is a good scorer near the basket. The Sun Devils can go inside to Bachynski, who is an effective low post player.
This summary makes the Sun Devil offense sound better than it actually is. The truth is, Arizona State is a team that has at times had a hard time finding ways to score. Sendek's squad finished ninth in the Pac-12 in offensive efficiency; when the Sun Devils aren't hitting threes, points can be difficult to come by.
When Texas has the ball
Arizona State is a team that is much stronger on the defensive end of the floor. Sendek's team is the No. 27 rated defense per kenpom.com, and was the second best D in the Pac-12 during the conference season.
A tough Sun Devil defense starts with Bachynski, among the best rim defenders in college basketball. In non-transition situations, opponents have only converted 51 percent of their layups and dunks.
With the rim protected, Sendek's perimeter players do an outstanding job of defending the arc. Opponents get fewer than 28 percent of their attempts off from three point range, the 28th lowest rate in D-I.
Arizona State is also a solid defensive rebounding team. Bachynski is an absolute horse, grabbing 21 percent of opponent misses all by himself. The battle on the boards will be critical in this game; Texas is among the very best offensive rebounding teams in the nation. If Bachynski can keep Ridley, Holmes, Ibeh, and Lammert off the glass, the Sun Devils will knock out the thing that Texas does best.
The fact that Arizona State takes away the three point shot matters less in a game against Texas, a team that would just as soon not take very many of them. If the Texas bigs can collectively put some fouls on Bachynski early, it won't be good for Sendek. The drop-off between Bachynski and reserve Eric Jacobsen is substantial.
What should we expect?
From watching the sorts of game plans that Texas has used to attack teams all season, I fully expect the Horns to come out aiming to do two things:
- Contain dribble penetration, particularly when Carson has the ball. In doing this, Texas can hope to indirectly limit good looks from three.
- Attack Bachynski early. The match up when Texas is on offense between Cameron Ridley and the Sun Devil giant may very likely determine the outcome of the game.
As with all games that I watch, I will be keeping an eye early on the sorts of shots that each team gets. Nothing should make Texas fans happier than seeing Carson shooting jumpers off the dribble early, even if a few go down. Likewise, if Texas is getting shots in the paint and in transition, and if the Horns are able to attack Bachynski, than things will be even more encouraging. But if Carson is getting free in transition, and finding teammates for open looks from three, Texas will potentially have problems.
It should be a closely contested game. This appears on paper to be an interesting match up between two equally flawed teams.