Coming off its tournament title in Las Vegas, ASU basketball looks to improve to 6-0 when returning home to face Nebraska Omaha.
Arizona State is five games into its season, and already, things don’t make a lot of sense.
Let’s start internally. Coach Bobby Hurley has led the Sun Devils to their second straight 5-0 start. Along the way, the team has flipped the program’s narrative, leading the nation in rebounds per game (46.6) and having a true freshman as a top-25 scorer.
Sure, maybe ASU expected the hot beginning. But even without junior transfer Rob Edwards, they emphasize defense and transition scores, a disconnection from last year’s run-and-gun, live-and-die by the 3-ball mentality.
Let’s look at the external factors. After defeating 15th-ranked Mississippi State and Utah State in the MGM Resorts Main Event tournament last week, the Sun Devils were omitted from this week’s AP Top 25. The Bulldogs, however, stayed in.
Above them was also 18th-ranked Oregon, a team broken down by an onslaught of outside shots and free throws against Iowa in New York. Following a loss at home to Texas Southern, it appears the Ducks are tasked with fixing of their own.
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As crazy as that seems, something else happened for the second straight year. UCLA’s losses to Michigan State and North Carolina were its first and second of the season, making the Sun Devils the final unbeaten team in the Pac-12.
So, here we are. After ASU’s double-overtime loss to Cal State Fullerton made the Sun Devils look like a work in progress, they’ve now become the hunted. And their tall task comes in a week with the first of two sneaky opponents.
Entering Wells Fargo Arena tonight will be Summit League representative Nebraska Omaha, a 3-4 squad led by 13-year coach Derrin Hansen. While the Mavericks hold four defeats, three come against Power 5 opponents, including a 4-point loss to Colorado on Nov. 16.
The Mavericks are led by reigning second-team All-Summit guard Zach Jackson, who leads the team in points (20.6) and is second in assists (2.9). While Jackson accounts for nearly one-third of the scoring, he does it in an efficient manner, shooting 56 percent from the field and 44 percent from 3-point range.
At 6 feet 5 inches tall, Jackson, like Fullerton’s Kyle Allman Jr., could pose a threat on the perimeter.
Standing across will be junior guard J.T. Gibson, a less-accurate shooter that lives at the free throw line. Gibson leads the Mavericks in free throw percentage at 85.7 percent, thriving at taking contact and pushing the tempo.
While the guards will lead the way, the Mavericks’ bigs are their weakness. Their tallest player in their current rotation is 6-foot-9 inch Brett Barney, who only averages 2.9 rebounds in nearly 14 minutes per game.
With their three other forwards stand at 6-feet-8 inches tall, Omaha has faced heavy woes on the glass. Through seven games, the Mavericks hold a rebounding margin of -3.4.
What Omaha lacks in size, however, they make up in discipline. The team prides itself on a turnover margin of +3.7, taking care of the ball and not forcing bad shot attempts.
The Mavericks’ strategy will likely be similar to that of Utah State, a possession-based game that slows tempo. If ASU is to find success, they’ll have to do it by speeding things up.
With Edwards and sophomore guard Remy Martin listed as game-time decisions, the Sun Devils may see a lot of Luguentz Dort at point guard. This could create positionless lineups with Zylan Cheatham playing center and Kimani Lawrence shifting from the wing to the interior.
Regardless of how the Sun Devils play, they’ll be expected to win. They open as a 18-point home favorite tonight, and if they continue to control the glass and the physical game, Hurley’s team should have the advantage.
The Sun Devils and Mavericks tip off at 7 p.m. tonight at Wells Fargo Arena in Tempe, Arizona. The game will be broadcasted on Pac-12 Networks.