New-look Sun Devils ready for No. 8 Wildcats, Pac-12 play
TEMPE, Ariz. — Coach Herb Sendek uses an automobile analogy to describe the preseason changes Arizona State went through while it prepared for this weekend’s start to Pac-12 play in Tucson.
"It has the feel that you are driving a stick shift for the first time," Sendek said.
The ride is getting a lot smoother, though, for the Sun Devils. After several iterations, and with the caveat that things can always change, ASU appears to have settled on the lineup that best suits its personnel and is best equipped to attack conference play as it seeks a second straight NCAA berth.
The critical element is the ascension of 6-foot-6 power forward Savon Goodman, a former UNLV transfer who gained eligibility Dec. 16 and had double-doubles in two of his three starts. He brings a physical, athletic presence and with center Eric Jacobsen gives the Sun Devils two interior threats on both ends of the court.
Junior college transfers Roosevelt Scott and Gerry Blakes teamed in the backcourt the last two games, victories over Detroit and Harvard, as roles transformed. Blakes moved from off guard to the point against Detroit, and he, Scott and senior wing Shaquielle McKissic give the Sun Devils above-average athleticism at all three perimeter positions.
"I like the energy that we have brought so far," Blakes said. "We’ve been tested twice so far, and I feel we did OK. We have a big test coming up, which is a great opportunity to see where we really stand."
The new Sun Devils (8-5) will be tested not only against No. 8 Arizona (12-1) at McKale Center on Sunday — on FOX Sports 1 at 5 p.m. — but also by a upcoming schedule that includes five road games in the next seven. Their first home game is against No. 10 Utah on Jan. 15.
The Sun Devils are 8-7 against Arizona the last seven years, and only UCLA (10) has more victories against the Wildcats in that span.
Sendek simplified the offense after the lineup changes. The Sun Devils trimmed the playbook to better accentuate what they do well and appear to have incorporated more of the high pick-and-roll offense late in the shot clock.
"Our whole team is kind of being reconfigured in December," Sendek said after the 56-46 victory over Harvard, the Sun Devils’ best non-conference win.
"It really starts with the emergence and inclusion of Savon. Having him available to play is the starting point of our changes. With Savon’s emergence it obviously requires us to reconfigure our offense, and that takes some time."
Goodman averages 15.8 points and eight rebounds since he joined the team for the Marquette game on Dec. 16. He was not in the lineup when the Sun Devils beat UNLV decisively, 77-55, at Wells Fargo Arena two weeks earlier, the only game matching common opponents with the Wildcats. UNLV held off Arizona, 71-67 in Las Vegas, in the Wildcats’ most recent game on Dec. 23.
It goes to the breadth of ASU’s changes that three of its major contributors against UNLV saw little time against Harvard. Freshman point guard Kodi Justice had 13 points, six assists and no turnovers against UNLV, while seniors Jonathan Gilling and Bo Barnes combined for 20 points and eight rebounds off the bench.
Those three played a total of 15 minutes against Harvard, although team leaders Gilling and Barnes are likely to see more time in Pac-12 games when favorable matchups present themselves. Gilling, who has played both forward spots during his career, has 232 3-pointers. He has made 29 this season after hitting 66 last year. He had 21 points against Arizona in 2012.
Junior college transfer Blakes is averaging 12.2 points a game this sesaon, while McKissic is averaging 10.7 points a game and Jacobsen is at 10.3 while making 67.1 percent of his field goal attempts. The Sun Devils have rebounded well, averaging 5.7 more than their opponents, a figure bumped up by their 40-23 edge on the boards against Harvard.
"Having Savon back is really good on the boards," McKissic said. "It takes a lot of pressure off me and ‘G’ (Blakes) when we drive it, to know that we can try to create for ourselves and he’ll be there to clean it up if things don’t go as planned."
Scott, a 6-foot-3 junior college transfer, has 19 points and 12 rebounds in his two starts, and he held Harvard’s best player, Wesley Saunders, to one basket in the second half last Sunday.
"I really don’t care about the offense," Scott said. "I’ll take defense. I just try to give my team my all. Every possession. Every minute. Every second. Every time."