Although Tuesday's dreadful loss to Pepperdine was by a mere six points, the vibe lingering inside of Wells Fargo Arena post game made the deficit feel closer to 56. But when a so-called "up-tempo" team is held to 34% shooting and zero fast break points by an opponent who finished sixth in the WCC last season, it's easy to see why. Now with a New Mexico team that beat the Sun Devils 76-62 in last year's opener heading into town, it looks like things wont be getting easier anytime soon.
And, on top of it all, this year's Lobo roster might be even better. After leading one of the NCAA's younger squads on court the past two seasons (and still winning back to back Mountain West titles), New Mexico Head Coach Steve Alford now get's the luxury of three seniors, two of which above average big men (Drew Gordon and A.J. Hardeman). This is particularly concerning with the Devils struggling in the low post out of the gates; in game one against a much smaller Montana State lineup, ASU was manhandled in the offensive rebound category allowing 17 and then most recently against Pepperdine, they were only able to score three buckets inside.
Even if the combination of Kyle Cain, Ruslan Pateev and Jordan Bachynski are able to slow down this duo, Keala King and the rest of the guards will still have to worry about Kendall Williams, who scored 15 points against them in last year's matchup in the Pit.
One thing Arizona State does have working for them against this talented trio is timing. In New Mexico's curious loss to New Mexico St. on Wednesday, Gordon and Hardeman went a combined 1 of 10 from the field, totaling only four points and 12 rebounds together. Even worse, Williams didn't sink a single one of his nine attempts, with his five turnovers being the cherry on top of one horrendous performance.
But then again, essentially every Devil not named Trent Lockett are heading into this game on a cold streak of their own. So it's hard to say what advantage, if any, ASU has against this familiar foe, especially considering Trent Lockett also turned in a fantastic 40 minutes (game-high 22 points, 8 rebounds) last time he saw New Mexico and the Sun Devils still managed to lose by fourteen.
Key Matchup: Trent Lockett vs Demetrius Walker- While Lockett might not be asked to guard Walker for the entire time he's on the court, the Sun Devil's emotional leader is the only player, along with Pateev, that remembers Walker's brief time at the Arizona State University (Walker played his freshman year at ASU before transferring to New Mexico; he sat out 2010-2012 due to NCAA transfer rules). Lockett on Walker - "He's going to go come out and show ASU fans what they missed."
What to watch for: Can the Devils run and gun with an experienced fast break team?- Steve Alford has been a coach that gives his Lobos just as much freedom in the offense as Herb Sendek has been striving for with his Devils this year. So will the Devils be able to run with a lineup that's seasoned in their ad-libbing system? Or will the fans at Wells Fargo be forced to watch a team trying to be something it's not yet again?
Media Coverage: Watch the Arizona State men's basketball team for the first time on TV this season on Fox Sports AZ or listen live on the radio at KTAR Sports 620 AM.
Final Prediction: Arizona State 65 - New Mexico 80
Call me naive, but I truly believe this Devils team will get consistently better before everyone turns their calender's to the new year. Unfortunately, this wont be the game to get them back on track against a Lobo team that has a very good chance of taking their frustrations from the New Mexico State upset and channeling it to one solid, bounce back performance. If ASU can at least keep this competitive till the final buzzer, that will be a step in the right direction.