(Photo: Nicole Hernandez/WCSN)
The Arizona State Sun Devils begin the second half of Pac-12 play with a trip to the Beaver State, starting with the No. 13 Oregon Ducks on Thursday night.
Arizona State (10-12, 3-6 in Pac-12) is coming off a high-scoring loss to Washington State. The Ducks (19-3, 8-1 in Pac-12) rode a school record 17-game win streak into their match at Colorado on Saturday. The Buffalos pulled the rug out from under Oregon, holding the Ducks to 38 percent shooting and securing the 74-65 upset win.
The Sun Devils, who beat Colorado earlier in the season, aren’t looking at what the Buffalos did, but are focusing on what they need to do to hang on against a top-25 team.
“We don’t go into the game saying ‘We beat them so we can beat that team’,” junior guard Tra Holder said. “Just us playing hard it gives us shots to be in any game and I think we’ve showed that in some spurts.”
Oregon under head coach Dana Altman, the winner of Pac-12 Coach of the Year in three of the last four seasons, builds an identity around its elite defense. The Ducks rank first in opponent field goal percentage, three-point percentage and blocked shots, as well as second in steals.
The centerpiece of Oregon’s prosperity on that end is senior forward Chris Boucher. Boucher led the Pac-12 in blocks last season and is on track to repeat that ranking. He’s also Oregon’s second-best scorer in points per game despite only starting 12 of 20 games this season.
“He’s long, he’s mobile, he can shoot the three and he’s very explosive on your closeout,” ASU head coach Bobby Hurley said. “If you’re not great with it, he can rip you and attack the rim. He’s a multi-dimensional player and a very good player for them.”
The Ducks also have junior forward Jordan Bell, who leads the Pac-12 in shooting efficiency at 63.8 percent and is fourth in blocked shots. With two high-level interior defenders, ASU will face a different sort of challenge than it did against UCLA or Arizona, other top teams for whom defense is not the calling card.
“They just play different,” Hurley said. “With Bell, they have a really good shot-blocking tandem, they have the ability to make the three-point shot, and they have a good scheme to incorporate all those things.”
ASU has not been successful at attacking teams with two big defenders. When teams like Washington State dropped into a 2-3 zone with two sets of long arms blocking access to the rim, the Sun Devils were forced to settle for contested jumpers.
The skill of ASU’s shotmakers is on display regularly, giving ASU two of the top three scorers in the Pac-12 in Holder and Torian Graham. Those players will need their shooting strokes on point for ASU to get the upset.
While Oregon does have impressive interior defenders, they also like to play small, which for ASU could level the playing field a bit.
“They play similar to us,” Holder said. “They start out small and then they come out with bigs. Maybe that’ll work to our advantage because we play small. It’s gonna be a battle of a lot of guard play and things of that nature.”
The other hurdle for Arizona State is the power of Oregon’s home-field advantage. The Ducks are 13-0 in Eugene this season and have won 38-straight games on their home court. In contrast, ASU is 2-5 on hostile ground this season.
The Sun Devils will have to muster up quite the offensive explosion to win in Matthew Knight Arena, something no one has done since Arizona on Jan. 8, 2015.