TEMPE, Ariz. — Former Connecticut ringleader Kemba Walker, who knows a thing or two about long NCAA tournament runs, reached out with a gentle nudge to old friend Jahii Carson on Sunday after Arizona State was named to the NCAA field.
"He said, ‘On the big stage, big players shine and show up, so what are you going to do?’" Carson said.
Carson’s response included a slight smile.
Consider it a warning.
Carson, the engine that propels ASU, will lead the No. 10 seed Sun Devils against No. 7 seed Texas on Thursday in the second round of the NCAA tournament Midwest Regional in Milwaukee. It will be the Sun Devils’ first NCAA appearance since 2009, when sophomore guard James Harden pushed them to the round of 32 before leaving for the NBA. The sophomore Carson plans to turn pro after this season, and he is "ecstatic" about this opportunity.
"This is definitely a stage I want to show my stuff," said Carson, who averages 18.6 points and 4.5 assists per game, the only player in the Pac-12 to average at least 16 points and four assists.
"I’ve seen a lot of guys step up to the plate and play some of their best basketball in the tournament. And I think us three guys right here are going to step up and play some of the best basketball that we’ve played our whole career, period. I know I’ve dreamed of playing in it. I know guys right here have dreamed of playing in it. I think we can do something special."
Carson shared the interview room with seniors Jordan Bachynski and Jermaine Marshall when he said that, and it will likely take a return to form by all three J-amigos to move the Sun Devils into the third round against either Michigan or Wofford on Saturday.
The Sun Devils (21-11) have lost five of their last seven games, and consistent production has been an issue. Bachynski leads NCAA Division I with 4.13 blocked shots per game this season and is averaging 11.1 points and 8.3 rebounds a game. But he has scored in double figures in only one of the last seven games.
Marshall, who averages 15.0 points a game, may be even more integral to ASU’s chances moving forward. A case could be made that without his clutch shooting against Arizona and in two games against Cal, the Sun Devils may not have made the NCAA tournament.
Marshall scored 29 points the 69-66, double-overtime victory over the UA on Feb. 14, topping it off with eight points — two 3-pointers, a driving jumper — in the final 94 seconds. His 3-pointer with 17 seconds remaining in regulation at Cal sent an 89-78 victory into overtime, and he had 22 against Cal in a 78-60 victory on March 1, ASU’s last victory. But Marshall has scored in double figures in only three of the last seven games while making 26-of-77 field goal attempts, 14-of-50 3-point attempts.
"All I can do is keep shooting and tell myself the next one is going in," said Marshall, who said he has put up an extra 500 shots a day since the team got home following a 79-58 loss to Stanford in the Pac-12 tournament quarterfinals. "I don’t let a lot of things affect my confidence. I don’t think we do either as a team do. I think we just need to come together. When we are connected, we are a tough team to play against. I know we have a lot of doubters. We want to show what we’ve got."
While Jonathan Gilling has stepped up off the bench by making 15 of his last 29 3-point field goal attempts, ASU’s offense is at its best when Marshall also is making his shots, because defenses have a more difficult time collapsing on Bachynski and clogging Carson’s penetration lanes.
"He’s as big a part of the team as anybody," Carson said of Marshall.
Texas (23-10) enters the game in a similar funk to ASU, having lost five of its last eight games, with its only victories against TCU, West Virginia and Baylor. The Longhorns, however, are among the best in the nation in rebounding, which plays into an ASU weakness. Texas is 11th in NCAA Division I with a plus-7.2 rebounding margin per game. ASU is 217th, at minus-2.5. Six-foot-9, 285-pound sophomore Cameron Ridley and 6-8, 240-pound junior forward Jonathan Holmes combine for 24 points and 15 rebounds between them. Guards Isaiah Taylor and Javan Felix also average in double figures.
"We need to get everybody on the boards," Bachynski said. "It can’t just be one guy going to the glass. It’s guard getting bodies on guys. When I am engaged in boxing a guy out, we have to have come guys come in and take the rebound."
ASU has started slowly in recent games, and believes that must change. Oregon took a 15-0 lead in an 85-78 victory on March 4, Oregon State scored nine of the first 10 points in a 78-76 overtime victory March 8, and Stanford scored the first nine points the Pac-12 tournament game.
"They’ve been killing us," Carson said of the slow starts. "We’re spotting them points, basically. This time in March, every game comes down to one or two possessions, so if we can eliminate those, I think we are pretty much in every game and winning every game. When you spot teams that many points, you have to play almost flawless the whole game."
NCAA MIDWEST REGION
Who: Arizona State (21-11) vs. Texas (23-10) When: Thursday, 6:40 pm approximately Where: BMO Harris Bradley Center, Milwaukee Scouting report ASU: The Sun Devils are led by the J-amigos — Jahii Carson, Jordan Bachynski and Jermaine Marshall, who have combined to average 45 points and 15 rebounds a game. … They have lost five of their last seven and have not won away from Wells Fargo Arena since an 89-78, overtime victory at California on Jan. 26. … All-league point guard Carson is the only player in the Pac-12 to average 16 points and four assists this season. … Bachynski leads NCAA Division I with 132 blocked shots, and he holds school and conference season and career records. … ASU coach Herb Sendek was an assistant on Texas coach Rick Barnes’ staff at Providence College in 1988-89. Sendek is 6-1 in first-round NCAA tournament games, including a 71-62 victory over Arizona as a No. 12 seed at Miami (Ohio) in 1995. … ASU outrebounded a Pac-12 opponent just six times in 19 games. Texas: The Longhorns have a balanced offense and bang the boards hard. Four players average between 13.0 points and 11.2 points a game. Junior forward Jonathan Holmes is the leading scorer, and guards Isaiah Taylor (12.5) and Javan Felix (11.8) follow. Holmes, 6-foot-8, was a second-team All-Big 12 pick. … They ranked 11th in NCAA Division I in rebounding margin, averaging 7.2 more rebounds than their opponent per game. … Texas is returning to the tournament after missing in 2013, which snapped a streak of 14 consecutive NCAA appearances. It is 9-9 against NCAA tournament teams, losing twice to Oklahoma and once to BYU and winning two of three against Baylor. It beat second-seed Kansas and third-seed Iowa State once each. … The Longhorns are young — Taylor is a freshman and the three starters other than Holmes are sophomores. … Texas has lost two of its last three first-round games, falling to Cincinnati as a No. 11 seed in 2012 and to Wake Forest as a No. 8 seed in 2010. Last call: The Sun Devils have the experience, and the best player on the floor in Carson, but the game may be decided on the backboards, where Texas has a distinct advantage.