Starting Pac-10 play on the road on New Year's Eve against a UCLA (5-7) team that has underperformed is something that might give a lot of teams pause, but Arizona State (10-3) junior guard Jamelle McMillan is of the opinion it really shouldn't matter.
"It's the same game in this building, their building, on Mars," McMillan said from ASU's practice facility several days before the trip to Los Angeles. "The court is 94 feet, the ball is the same and the rim is 10 feet tall. If we're able to go out there and keep our minds together and focus on what we're supposed to with the game plan we should be fine."
The Bruins lost consecutive games to Portland, Butler and Long Beach State in November and have looked like a shell of the team that went 26-9 last season, including 16-2 at home. But there are signs UCLA is starting to improve, as coach Ben Howland's squad stayed relatively close with No. 1 Kansas at home on Dec. 6 for most of the game, losing 73-61.
"UCLA has really good players and really good coaches," Sun Devil coach Herb Sendek said. "They're going to be a great challenge for us on Thursday afternoon. I think we know that first hand. Our guys know who they have. They've competed against them in high school and in college in many respects. You go on the road in the conference and play a team like UCLA, we're going to have to play extremely well, as well as we've played in any game this season to win on Thursday afternoon."
ASU's strategy, as tipped by senior guard Derek Glasser, will be to contain lanky 6-foot-4 sophomore guard Malcolm Lee, who will do much of UCLA's ball handling and penetration, and senior sharpshooter Michael Roll.
"Malcolm, who I think they're looking to be their guy, is really starting to come into his own now," Glasser said. "Of late he's really been picking it up. Michael Roll is not only one of the best shooters in the conference but in the country. So that's going to be a big key if we can limit Lee and Roll. It's going to be hard but that's what we have to do to win. Defensive rebounding for us are going to be a big key. Those are the big three keys for us."
Glasser said it will be important for the Sun Devils to go into the game feeling a sense of urgency regardless of UCLA's struggles to this point, particularly in light of the fresh start granted by onset of conference play.
"If you look at their roster, they're as stacked as anybody even though their record doesn't show it," Glasser said. "The good thing about conference is everybody is 0-0 so everybody brings it."
ASU has an offense that would never be described as explosive or particularly dynamic, and so its players understand that to win games against high level competition it will need to excel on the other end of the court.
"I think we have the personnel to be an elite defensive team," McMillan said. "Defense is what's going to win us games. In order for us to be successful we have to be lock down on the defensive end of the floor. We also have to execute on the offensive end. But if we establish ourselves early defensively, play physical, we have to get on the boards. That's been a trend for us all year long. We've been killed on the boards in the non-conference. Control the glass, limit teams to one shot, we should be a pretty good team."
Recognizing the importance of getting off to a good start is something experienced players like Glasser and McMillan understand at a high level, as they have a greater appreciation of what it's like to have losses in December and January come back to haunt them in March, falling just shy of a NCAA Tournament bid in 2007-08.
"I think of any year I've been here this is the most important year to get off to a good start," Glasser said. "We play UCLA and USC and then we turn around with Washington and Washington State, arguably the best two teams in the conference so far. So for us to at worst split and at best go 2-0 is incredibly important to our success this year."