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ASU Men’s Basketball: ASU faces tough opening round test against Northern Iowa

(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)

Coming off of a dominant, blowout victory over Cal Poly, the Arizona State Sun Devils are getting ready to take on the Northern Iowa Panthers Thursday in their first game of the Tire Pros Invitational in Orlando, Florida.

ASU (2-0) comes into the contest after two strong performances at home, albeit against opponents the Sun Devils were expected to beat. ASU took down both of those teams by a combined score of 40 points but struggled at times in the first half of both games.

While scoring around only 41 points in the first half of both games, the Sun Devils were a different team after the break with an average of around 50 points scored in the second half, following the football team’s trend of being labeled as a second half team. It’s difficult to diagnose the exact cause for ASU’s slow starts, but it may have to do with the long absence from basketball for some of the players.

Junior guard Shannon Evans II and senior guard Torian Graham both had to sit out last season due to the NCAA transfer rule, and Graham hasn’t played in two years due to also sitting out a year after transferring to Buffalo in 2014.

When they’ve turned it on both players have been electric on both ends of the floor so far this season. Evans is averaging 19.5 points and 2.5 assists per game and Graham is second on the team in points and rebounds per game averaging 20.5 points and 6.5 rebounds.

Redshirt freshman forward Andre Adams also hasn’t played in almost two years due to multiple ACL tears.

The rust that comes with those long layoffs may cause the Sun Devils to need some additional time to warm up in these early games. However, one would expect this trend to end as the season moves along and ASU will certainly look to start stronger against Northern Iowa (1-0).

The Panthers routed Coe College 74-37 in their first game of the season, but NIU is missing some of their biggest contributors from last season.

Three of the team’s top four scorer’s from last season (guards Wes Washpun, Matt Bohannon, and Paul Jesperson) have all graduated, leaving an absence of proven scorer’s for Northern Iowa.

Northern Iowa has seven new players this season (three true freshmen, three transfers, one walk-on), and has four redshirt freshmen.

Senior guard Jeremy Morgan is the only top-four scoring option left on the team and he will look to be one of the key veteran leaders for the Panthers this year. Junior forward Jeremy Koch will be a big presence for the Panthers down low as he currently leads the team in rebounding.

Look for Koch to try to use his 6’9 234-pound frame to bully an ASU team that is relatively thin in the frontcourt.

ASU senior forward Obinna Oleka has been the only consistent contributor in the paint for the Sun Devils this year. He leads the team with 13 rebounds per game and has also been effective at getting to the basket, scoring an average of 12.5 points.

Oleka is also tied with junior guard Tra Holder for the team lead in minutes, further demonstrating how important Oleka is on both ends of the court for ASU.

The Sun Devils are currently ranked 32 in the country in rebounding with 44 rebounds per game, but those impressive rebounding totals have come against two teams with similar size issues to ASU.

If their guards continue to play as well as they have this season and freshmen Sam Cunliffe and Jethro Tshisumpa begin to provide more on the court, look for ASU to grab a win and advance to the second round of the Tire Pros Invitational.

Tip off for the game is at 2:30 p.m. Thursday on ESPNU.

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