Sun Devils need to put it all together to beat top-ranked Wildcats

ASU coach Herb Sendek is hoping for a return to form for all-conference point guard Jahii Carson, who is shooting just 33 percent in four Pac-12 games.

Gary A. Vasquez/Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona State has had five attempts to knock off a No. 1 team since recording what might be the biggest victory in school history, an 87-67 dismantling of then-No. 1 Oregon State on the road on March 7, 1981.

None ended well for the Sun Devils.

They will have another chance in Tucson on Thursday night against top-ranked Arizona, one of three unbeaten teams in NCAA Division I. In coach Herb Sendek, they have a man who has played the underdog role well. 

Sendek beat No. 1-ranked teams from  Duke and North Carolina with a pair of unranked North Carolina State teams in his previous post, but even he admits he did not see those games coming.

"Just to show you the science of this and the predictably, when we beat North Carolina in Chapel Hill, the day before we had one of the worst practices ever seen. Ever seen," Sendek said.

"Is there some way to predict? There are too many variables."

Sendek called Tuesday’s ASU practice middle-of-the-road, and at one point he left the court and took a seat in the upper deck behind the south basket at the Weatherup Center to supervise the rest of the workout from there.

ASU (13-4) is off to a second straight strong start after opening 14-2 last season, and it only has to look back to the final game of the 2011-12 season for its last victory in this series: An 87-80 win at Wells Fargo Arena.

And while the variables are many for Thursday night’s game at McKale Center, it’s safe to say several things must go right for the Sun Devils to have a fighting chance at the upset. Among them are these four:

7-2 center Jordan Bachynski’s rebounding and defense will be critical against Arizona NBA-sized front court.

Arizona has a pro-sized frontline in 7-foot center Kaleb Tarczewski, 6-8 Brandon Ashley and 6-9 Aaron Gordon, who plays even bigger because of his wing span. Top reserve forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, 6-7, is ultra-aggressive on the offensive backboard.

The Wildcats entered the week ranked seventh in the nation with a 10.7 rebounding margin, and no opponent has outrebounded them this season, although the L.A. schools came close last week when UCLA was -1 on the boards and USC was even. NBA scouts flock to Arizona games this season to see their array of talent, and one familiar with the league was wowed by the Wildcats’ determination, saying they rebound like an NBA team.

With 7-foot-2 Jordan Bachynski leading the way, ASU is averaging about half a rebound more than its foes this season, but the Sun Devils are not particularly tall or physical otherwise. Controlling Arizona’s second shots and put-backs is a must. 

One of the best two-way point guards in the nation, the 5-foot-11 Carson has not been himself lately, at least statistically. Carson made 17 of 51 field-goal attempts (33 percent) while ASU split its first four Pac-12 games, and he has nine assists against 17 turnovers in that span.

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Assists are team-dependent, of course. Carson did not score in the first 15 minutes against UCLA on Sunday, although that in itself is not particularly noteworthy because he often works to get his teammates involved before looking to score himself. Teams obviously focus much of their attention on Carson, and that has only heightened this season, which will be his last, he has said, before declaring for the NBA draft.

Carson suffered a right ankle sprain earlier in the season and said he still feels the occasional tweak, but his mobility does not appear to be affected. "I’ve been in a little bit of a slump, not playing the best basketball I know I can play, not contributing as much as I know they need me to," Carson said.

The Sun Devils are not very deep, although it has not hurt them so far this season. Michigan State transfer Brandan Kearney, 6-5, has emerged as the backup point guard to Carson, and 6-5 small forward Egor Koulechov is the only frontcourt reserve who is averaging as much as 10 minutes per game. Carson got into early foul trouble when the teams played in Tempe last season, and that became an issue when Arizona’s perimeter players began attacking the basket. 

Three of the best teams ASU has played this season — Creighton, Washington and UCLA — have shot at least 46 percent from the field,  and none had particular trouble finding good shots against the Sun Devils’ man-to-man defense.

Both UCLA and USC played about 30 minutes of zone defense against Arizona last weekend, in part to clog the middle to reinforce their rebounding and in part to test the Wildcats’ perimeter shooters. Nick Johnson and Gabe York had three 3-pointers apiece against UCLA, and T.J. McConnell tied a career high with five against USC, when Johnson also had three. At the same time, the games were close enough (USC was within five points with five minutes remaining before losing, 73-53) that opponents might consider that the best option.

ASU traditionally plays man-to-man. "Teams have tried that (zone) and been unsuccessful, and teams have tried man and been unsuccessful," Sendek said. "I don’t know if there is a better way. You have to do what you do and play it well." 

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