(Photo: Eliav Gabay/WCSN)
After putting on one of the best scoring performances in program history, the Arizona State Sun Devils will face the greatest challenge a team can possibly face at this point in the season: the top-ranked team in the nation.
The Sun Devils will head to neutral ground in the Bahamas to play against the University of Kentucky on Monday. The Wildcats currently sit at 6-0, boasting the top offense in the SEC by almost seven points per game above the next team. Their defense, on the other hand, has not allowed an opponent to crack 80 points yet this season.
These two programs are not completely unfamiliar foes, as they have crossed paths in the recent past. On Dec. 12, 2015, the two sides met in a game on Kentucky’s floor, with ASU falling 72-58, in an affair that was only a one point game at the half.
However, with a bolstered roster, this is not the same Sun Devil team as last year. They are deeper, more dynamic, and overall simply more potent. That being the case, the odds for ASU still seem large.
While ASU brings a powerful guard rotation to the table, UK will be able to counter ASU’s great strength at those positions. Freshman Malik Monk and sophomore Isaiah Briscoe both average over 18 points per game, and freshman De’Aaron Fox is not far behind at 15.5.
The problem for the Devils is that their guard rotation of Tra Holder, Shannon Evans and Torian Graham will have to expend an unprecedented amount of energy on the defensive end to stop Kentucky’s attack. If they cannot muster enough energy to compete hard and execute well for 40 minutes on both ends, the path to an upset is narrow.
Kentucky can also excel at exploiting ASU’s biggest weakness: size. The Sun Devils lack height, whilst the Wildcats have six players who are 6-foot-9 or taller. ASU has been able to play small for much of the season with success, but the rebound battle will be far more challenging this time than against previous opponents. The differential will most likely be exploited by the Wildcats down low with potential ease.
While the matchup ASU is facing is intimidating, the team certainly is headed into Monday eager to show what it can do.
“I think our players are going to be very, very excited to play the game,” ASU coach Bobby Hurley said on Wednesday.”We obviously have a lot of respect for that program. We’re going to have to have a couple great days of practice.
What to Watch For
-Freshman Sam Cunliffe is second on the team in rebounding with 4.8 boards per game. He posted his first career double-double against The Citadel with 23 points and 10 rebounds. As ASU’s de facto power forward, his minutes will be key. The size of the Wildcats will require him to be well-positioned and able to use his leaping ability to compete on the boards.
-Similarly, freshman big man Jethro Tshisumpa has played very limited minutes, but has a few decent short spurts to his name. As the Devils’ tallest player, he may be relied on for heavier minutes against Kentucky. Combined with Obinna Oleka, the Sun Devils starting lineup may have just enough size to get by if Hurley chooses to utilize two big men.
-Defense will be the key for the Sun Devils. They’ll likely be forced into frequent rotation because the Wildcats have dynamic scoring up and down the lineup. Unlike with many lesser teams, there won’t be any matchup that ASU can just ignore. However, ASU also loves to be aggressive at the point of attack and trap in the post, requiring frequent double teams. The Devils will have to settle in defensively and stay on their toes against such a high-powered group.
The game will tip Monday at 5 P.M. Arizona time, and will be nationally televised on ESPN2.