The Sun Devils face their toughest challenge on their current five-game home stand when the Nevada Wolf Pack rolls into town Wednesday night.
I hinted at the possibility in the last match up preview of this Sun Devils squad putting together a six-game winning streak with this cake-walk of a home stand before conference play begins. Well, let me be the first to admit that I was underestimating this year's Nevada team when I made that flimsy prediction.
The Wolf Pack (5-3) are coming off a huge 76-73 overtime win against Washington this past Friday and they're looking to seek revenge after Arizona State stole one on their home court last season (ASU's 78-75 win was one of Nevada's nine losses by six points or less last season). Nevada is lead by junior guard Malik Story, who is 25 for 50 from downtown this season. To put that in perspective, ASU as a team has drained only 11 more threes than Story has by himself.
And the 6'5" sharpshooter isn't the only Nevada guard who can bury a jump shot. While he is only shooting 35% from the field on the season, sophomore Deonte Burton is coming of a career-best game against Washington in which had 31 points, sinking four of his six threes including a one very clutch one that tied the game late in regulation.
Beyond those two, the Wolf Pack feature some solid role players including senior Olek Czyz who, while not flashy, is a good bet to chip in around 10 points and seven boards a game and 6'8" swingman Jerry Evans who offers some versatility whether he's starting or coming off the bench. Dario Hunt is also a name to watch as he can out-scrap you for a rebound or two.
If you had to pick a weakness in this roster, it would be their free-throwing shooting, which is tied for 305th in the nation at 60.6%. If it comes down to the wire, this is definitely an area that the Sun Devils could exploit. But if it's to get that far, someone will have to step up beyond the arc to keep up with Story and match the production that departed senior Rihards Kuksiks had in last year's narrow victory (Kuksiks hit almost half the teams threes in route to his game-high 20 points).
Key Matchup: Keala King vs Deonte Burton- If I had to bet, I'd say that Coach Sendek decides to shadow Burton with King and stick Trent Lockett on Story when all four are on the court at the same time. And I'm not as worried about Lockett on Story as I am about the former match up. While I think King is showing flashes of being a defensive stopper, he has also shown flashes of mental lapses on that end of the court. I don't doubt his ability to pick the ball handler's pocket when needed but he will need to show some discipline against an aggressive play-maker such as Burton.
What to watch for: Jonathan Gilling's steady transition into ASU's deep threat- While this team will never be one one to dominate the three point percentage in the box score, it still needs to find a consistent option from downtown to open up the floor for the others. And don't look now but the young forward from Denmark is developing into just that. With five of his eight attempts from distance hitting the bottom of the net in the last three games, it will be interesting if Gilling can keep it with Chanse Creekmur failing to secure that role in the early going.
Media coverage: Watch live at FoxSportsArizona.com or tune into KTAR Sports 620 AM for the play-by-play at 6:30 PM.
Final Prediction: Arizona State 70 - 74 Nevada
This is the type of team that makes you pay for turnovers in transition. But if last Saturday's season-"low" 13 giveaways in the win against Tulsa are a sign of things to come, then I have a good chance of being wrong. For now though, I'm predicting that this will be the Devil's lone blemish in their aforementioned six-game stretch.