TEMPE, Ariz. – With its impressive turnaround, Arizona State is one of the success stories of the college basketball season. The Sun Devils have a chance to build on that while maintaining their spot in the Pac-12 upper division this weekend.
ASU (14-4, 3-2) plays host to newly remodeled USC and newly returned-to-power UCLA at Wells Fargo Arena, and the importance of the series is not lost on the Sun Devils, who are five days removed from a game that got away against archrival Arizona and have lost consecutive games for the first time this season.
“I think we look at it as our most important week coming in right now,” freshman point guard Jahii Carson said. “USC and UCLA are both good teams, so we have to go out and get mandatory wins. I look at it as must-win games for us, just to get us on another push, another run.
“We come back 2-0 against those guys, I think our confidence gets back going and we get back rolling as a team.”
The Sun Devils already have won four more games than they did without Carson a year ago, but they have lost their last two, at No. 16 Oregon (68-65) on Jan. 13 and at home to No. 6 Arizona (71-54) last Saturday, a two-point game that turned when Carson picked up his fourth foul midway through the second half.
Oregon, Arizona and UCLA appear to have separated themselves as the top conference contenders at this early juncture, while ASU is among a group of teams — Washington and Colorado included — looking to establish a pecking order on the next rung and possibly move into the top three. In one recently published mock NCAA tournament bracket, Colorado received the fourth and final Pac-12 berth, in part because its strength of schedule is in the top 20. ASU’s strength of schedule ranks No. 62, five spots ahead of Washington, although that is a less consequential number, nothing that a couple of conference victories cannot override.
“It is a great opportunity for us. We need to gain some momentum back and get a winning streak going,” said ASU senior forward Carrick Felix, who had his least productive
game of the season with five points and seven turnovers against Arizona. “Coming off that (Arizona) loss, we have a lot to learn. But win or loss, we’d still be saying the same things. We needed to go into these guys focused and ready to go.”
Carson, the floor leader, is averaging 17.3 points and 5.2 assists per game, fifth in the Pac-12 in scoring and second in assists, and is threatening to become the first Division I freshman to average 17/5 since Seton Hall’s Shaheen Hollaway did it in 1996-97. Carson leads the Pac-12 in minutes played, averaging 36.1 per game, a figure that would break James Harden’s school freshman record.
USC appeared to play with greater energy last week after coach Bob Cantu replaced Kevin O’Neill, pushing the tempo and giving off guard J.T. Terrell getting more freedom to create. The Trojans (8-11, 3-3) also played some zone defense and used 7-foot-2 Omar Orabi a little more. They took Oregon to the final minute before missing two point-blank follow shots in a 76-74 loss, then beat Oregon State in the final seconds. Cantu was asked what stood out from watching film of ASU.
“Jahii Carson, No. 1. He makes them go,” Cantu said. “He’s great in transition. He can get in the lane and find people. He gets to the foul line. He’s just a motor. He’s an energy, and we have to find a way to contain him and prevent him from operating everything out on the court. He is by far the main focus. They have other guys who can put up points and do things, but first and foremost, we have to find a way to stop him. That’s our focus this week — trying to stop penetration and being very good on our screen-and-roll coverage and find a way to make him take contested shots.”
ASU, at the same time, was hurt by the penetration from Arizona guards Nick Johnson and Mark Lyons last Saturday and has made tightening that up a priority this week.
“They (Trojans) have shooting guards, and we definitely need to make sure we can defend the drive,” Felix said. “They are kind of like Arizona. They can really penetrate, and one thing they do well is penetrate and kick for the three.”
Felix, averaging 14.6 points and 7.9 rebounds, took eight shots against Arizona, seven of them 3-pointers. He said that will change going forward.
“I’m not gone. I definitely played defense on myself. I settled for the three a little a little bit more. I’m going to go back to my old self and start from the inside work my way out. They (threes) were open, but as a player you want to get yourself warm from the inside. So you can warm up, then step outside a little bit,” Felix said.
UCLA starts freshman wings Shabazz Muhammad, Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams, with the 6-foot-10 Wear twins (Travis and David), point guard Larry Drew II, and Norman Powell also figuring into the rotation. Carson is familiar with Muhammad, Anderson and Adams from their time on the Adidas Nations summer national teams. Carson was on the 2011 team; the UCLA trio played a year later. Muhammad is leading UCLA with a 17.9-point scoring average after missing three games before his eligibility was restored, but Travis Wear is the team’s leading scorer (15.8) in conference play, shooting 59 percent from the field; Muhammad is averaging 15.0 in league play.
“It is exciting to play against those guys who are well-known names. I think that can do something for our confidence if we can go out there and stop those guys,” Carson said.