Preview: UCLA at ASU
After a 22-day layoff, Arizona State (4-3 overall, 1-0 in conference play) is scheduled to return to the court for a Thursday night matchup against UCLA.
The operative word: scheduled.
In the current climate, nothing is a guarantee. The Sun Devils’ last four contests have been either canceled or postponed due to COVID-19 issues.
ASU missed the first two games as a result of positive cases within the Incarnate Word and Utah programs, respectively, while the last two contests -- at Washington State and Washington -- were not played due to COVID-19 issues within the Sun Devil program.
(Note: The matchup against Incarnate Word was canceled outright, but the team is working with Pac-12 officials to make up the other games at some point during the season.)
Despite his team’s misfortunes, Bobby Hurley has managed to stay even-keeled during the last few weeks. In fact, he fully expected the pandemic to be a season-long issue for the Sun Devils.
“We knew coming in [to the season], it would be complex, and there would be adversity and challenging times,” Hurley explained. “So this was our turn to get a dose of it the last couple of weeks.
The extended break has been a double-edged sword for the Sun Devils.
On the one hand, it has allowed players to recover from injuries and get back on the court. Freshman Marcus Bagley, who missed three games due to a calf injury, has fully recovered and is expected to be in ASU’s lineup on Thursday night.
On the other hand, however, it is reasonable to expect some rust from the Sun Devils. Due to the recent COVID-19 cases within ASU’s program, the team was kept off the practice court for seven straight days.
As a result, Hurley said he focused on the team’s conditioning during Monday and Tuesday’s practices, while Wednesday’s session focused on execution and the game plan for the UCLA matchup.
But let’s not forget, before the canceled and postponed games, ASU was already a team at a crossroads.
In the Sun Devils’ last outing, they looked completely uninspired and lost to UTEP by 13 points at home.
Throughout the season, the team has consistently struggled in some key areas, such as rebounding, interior defense, and three-point shooting.
If ASU is ever to realize the lofty preseason expectations set for them, some changes will likely need to occur. And in Wednesday’s zoom call with reporters, Hurley hinted they he was going to tweak the lineup for Thursday’s game against UCLA.
“You’ll see changes,” he said. “I’m almost certain, but I’m not gonna go into a lot of detail about that, but you’ll see it real soon.”
UCLA (7-2 overall, 3-0 conference) enters Thursday’s matchup after a narrow 65-62 victory over Colorado this past weekend, which marked the team’s 13th consecutive home win.
However, the Bruins received some tough news before Saturday’s contest, when it was announced that senior forward Chris Smith had torn his ACL and would miss the remainder of the 2020-21 season. Smith, an All-Pac-12 First Team selection last season was UCLA’s second-leading scorer and rebounder.
It’s a huge loss for the Bruins, and the team has dedicated the rest of this season to Smith, who is a projected second-round pick in some NBA mock drafts.
"We were all heartbroken," sophomore Jaime Jaquez told reporters after Saturday’s win. "It's his senior year, and we're expecting great things. We're going to try to play this season for him."
Despite the loss of Smith, the Bruins are still expected to contend for the Pac-12 crown.
UCLA has flourished this season under Mick Cronin and reflects its fiery head coach's personality, who is in his second season in Westwood. Like Cronin’s former teams at Cincinnati, this year’s Bruin squad relies on its toughness, efficient offense, and scrappy man-to-man defense.
UCLA already boasts wins over Marquette, Utah, and Colorado this year.
The team’s offense, which is the 11th-most efficient in the nation according to KenPom, is focused on controlling the tempo, limiting turnovers and sharing the ball.
On defense, the Bruins have adopted a no-frills approach to guarding its opponents. They typically play a straight man-to-defense and do a good job of containing dribblers and controlling the glass.
Despite having plenty of athletes on its roster, the Bruins prefer to slow down the game whenever possible. They average only 65.2 possessions per 40 minutes, and their adjusted tempo ranks 342nd nationally (out of 357 teams), according to KenPom.
When they settle into their half-court offense, they do a great job of protecting the ball (only 11 turnovers per game), and sharing the wealth (they assist on nearly 60 percent of made field goals).
What makes UCLA so dangerous, however, is their well-balanced scoring attack. In fact, before Smith went down with his injury, seven Bruin players were averaging between 8-14 points per game.
Now that Smith is sidelined, the sophomore trio of Jaquez, Tyger Campbell and Johnny Juzang is expected to shoulder more of the scoring load.
Jaquez, a combo forward, is the team’s leading scorer (13.9 PPG) and three-point shooter (46.9 percent). He seems to have a nose for the ball and finds ways to impact the game on both ends of the floor.
Campbell has become one of the best floor generals in the Pac-12 this season and is the league-leader in assists (7.2 per game), while Juzang provides scoring and athleticism on the wing.
Juniors Cody Riley and Jules Bernard round out UCLA’s starting five.
Riley, a burly 6-foot-9 forward, anchors the frontcourt for the Bruins. He is active on the low block and provides consistent scoring and rebounding. Bernand, a 6-foot-6 wing, provides scoring and ball-handling on offense and is one of the team’s better on-ball defenders.
UCLA’s rotation typically goes nine deep, with a bulk of the bench minutes going to juniors Jalen Hill and David Singleton. Hill, the Bruins’ leading rebounder splits time with Riley as the five position players and essentially plays starter’s minutes (20 per game). Singleton, a part-time starter last season, has settled into his role as a reserve this year and is one of UCLA’s best three-point shooters (44 percent).
Sophomore wing Jake Kyman and freshman guard Jaylen Clark round out the rotation.
G Remy Martin, 6-0, Sr. (16.9 PPG, 3 RPG, 3.6 APG)
G Alonzo Verge Jr., 6-2, Sr. (15.4 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 3 APG)
G Josh Christopher, 6-5, Fr. (16.9 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 1.4 SPG)
F Marcus Bagley, 6-8, Fr. (13 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 40% 3PT)
F Jalen Graham, 6-8, So. (5 PPG, 3 RPG, 1.9 BPG)
G Tyger Campbell, 5-10, R-So. (10.9 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 7.2 APG)
G Jules Bernard, 6-6, Jr. (10.2 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 1.2 APG)
G Johnny Juzang, 6-6, So. (11 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 1.2 APG)
F Jaime Jaquez Jr., 6-6, So. (13.3 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 46.9% 3PT)
F Cody Riley, 6-9, R-Jr. (8.9 PPG, 5 RPG, 1.6 APG)
Key Stat: Under Hurley, ASU has a reputation for bouncing back after tough losses. In fact, over the last three seasons, the Sun Devils have an 18-5 record in games following a loss.
X-Factor: Bagley’s return to the lineup. ASU desperately missed the production of their freshman forward while he was out with a calf injury. He’s healthy now and expected to make a significant impact.
When Bagley was sidelined the last three games, the Sun Devil offense looked disjointed and struggled to score (67.3 points per game). The team shot only 40 percent from the field and 29 percent from 3-point range. Equally importantly, ASU was out-rebounded by 11 boards per game during that stretch. Bagley, the team’s top rebounder and most pure shooter, should help in both areas.
Prediction: UCLA 73, ASU 70
When: 8:30 pm MST
Where: Desert Financial Arena – Tempe, Ariz.
TV/Radio: ESPN / 98.7 FM
Up Next: The Sun Devils will host USC on Saturday at 5:00 pm MST.
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