LAS VEGAS, Nev. – Arizona State understands its situation perfectly. Sweep four games in the Pac-12 tournament here and make the NCAA tournament. Do not, and fall to the NIT. The Sun Devils are drawing on recent precedent to prepare.
The avalanche of examples continued last week when 20-loss Liberty swept the Big South conference tournament.
Sixth-seed Colorado won four games in four days in last year’s Pac-12 tournament in Los Angeles.
The Sun Devils, who enter the postseason with four consecutive losses, have chosen a bigger run as their inspiration: That of Connecticut, which won five Big East tournament games in five days and carried that all the way to the 2011 NCAA title.
“We look at the Connecticut team that had Kemba Walker and how they were 11th in the Big East and how they overcame that,” freshman point guard Jahii Carson said. “That is something that inspires us. We look at that and we have faith. The teams that we are matched up against in the Pac-12 tournament we have confidence.”
Like Walker, Carson leads his team in scoring and is the driving force behind the Sun Devils (20-11, 9-9) in their first-round game against Stanford (18-13, 9-9) at noon Wednesday at the MGM Grand, the new tournament site.
“I think that is something we are capable of doing, putting everything together with our mental focus,” said ASU senior forward Carrick Felix, who was named second-team All-Pac-12 and was a member of the league’s All-Defensive team.
“I watched that (UConn run) every night. Kemba Walker’s game-winner. I saw at all. Me and Jahii will work as a duo to kind of rally our team together. Everybody is going to come in prepared and ready to play. I think everybody is going to be humming.”
The winner of the ASU-Stanford game will play top-seeded No. 23 UCLA (23-8, 13-5) on Thursday at noon. The Sun Devils split with the Bruins this season, winning by 18 at Wells Fargo Arena and losing in overtime at Pauley Pavilion two weeks ago.
Stanford has won six straight in the series, including a 62-59 victory at Wells Fargo on Feb. 9, the only meeting between the two this season. Cardinal forwards Dwight Powell and Josh Huestis had a double-double apiece in that game, in which Arizona State trailed by 15 with 14:23 remaining before closing the gap by going to a small lineup without a post player. Powell had 22 points and 10 rebounds. Huestis was 13 and 12.
“Stanford, we missed some easy shots. We gave them a freebie. We feel confident in a game coming against them,” said Carson, whose team shot a season-low 34.4 percent from the field.
Carson is averaging 17.7 points and five assists, and his scoring average and total assists (154) rank 10th among freshmen in conference history. He also leads the conference with an average of 37 minutes per game, and he plans to make the most of his minutes this week.
“Definitely down the stretch of the season, it’s win or go home, so I’m going to try to do as much as I can for us to stay in the fight to win. If that’s scoring the basketball or making assists, that’s definitely what I’m going to do,” he said.
Carson, who excels at at the pick-and-roll game, often looks to defer to teammates early in games, but he enters the Pac-12 tournament with more of a sense of urgency.
“I am going to try to attack early,” he said. “Me attacking early, teams have to respect that, and then they are going to have to key on me, and that’s what I think is going to get my teammates going a little bit more.”
Felix and Powell are the only two Pac-12 players who rank in the top 15 in scoring and the top 10 in rebounding. At 6-foot-9, Powell creates matchup problems because he can play on the perimeter, much like 6-7 Huestis. Powell (15.1 points, 8.2 rebounds) and Huestis made two had two three-pointers apiece in the February win in Tempe, and 6-9 John Gage also made three when the Cardinal were 10 of 18 from distance.
Arizona State opted to counter bigs with a small lineup not only to create better matchups but also speed the game up and get Stanford out of its comfort zone. Jon Gilling’s 3-pointer with 14 seconds remaining brought the Sun Devils within three points, but they were the last points of the game.
“It’s a matchup quagmire,” ASU coach Herb Sendek said. “For all intents and purposes, Powell and Huestis are small forwards. They have the athletic ability and the length to literally guard positions one through five. They have an advantage defensively because of their skill and their versatility. Down at the other end, they are literally small forwards that you have to match up against with your four and your five.
“It reminds me a lot of when Derrick Williams was at (Arizona). He was their center, but now when you watch the T-Wolves (NBA Minnesota) you see him playing small forward. In college it was a really tough matchup with him playing center and your big trying to guard him. It is very similar with Stanford. That advantage is increased by the fact that at all times they have five three-point shooters on the court. So who do you help from?”
Arizona State leads the Pac-12 with a 44.5 field goal percentage in league play, while Stanford leads with a 41.1 percent 3-point percentage. The Cardinal have made 137 threes, behind only Washington State (141).
“I don’t think we have to go small. I think we have to play smart and tough,” Felix said. “I think that’s what it comes down to. In the first game, we made a lot of mental mistakes … with our rotations, our talk, our hands. Making sure we know the scouting report.
“Dwight Powell is a very mobile big, definitely take you inside and out. Huestis, as well. He’s a great rebounder. A double-double guy. With both of them, we just have to play smart and contain them. Know what their strengths are. Know what their weaknesses are and just make sure we keep them off the glass and make them make tough shots.”