After a one-year hiatus from the NCAA Tournament, Rick Barnes has returned the Texas program to its rightful place as a middling seed hoping to claw out a few victories and reach the Sweet 16. First up - an Arizona State program lead by Herb Sendek, who started his coaching career as an assistant for Barnes at Providence.
Like his old mentor, Sendek came into the season on the hot seat. The salad days of James Harden had come and gone, as ASU hadn't made the Big Dance since 2009. The Sun Devils were on the bubble for most of the year, but conference wins over Colorado, Oregon and Arizona were enough to get them in the field of 68.
The biggest difference between the two teams is experience. While everyone on Texas is coming back next season, pretty much no one on Arizona State is. They start three seniors and one sophomore (Jahii Carson) whose already said he will be entering the NBA draft. If Sendek is ever going to make a NCAA Tournament run in Tempe, this is the year.
Jahii Carson - 5'10 180 PG. You know a guy is good when he's well under 6'0 and he's not even thinking about staying in school for four seasons. Carson pretty much saved this program - a four-star recruit from nearby Mesa who walked on to campus and was first-team All Pac 12. He's blindingly fast, surprisingly powerful and he's improved as a shooter and decision-maker in his sophomore season. Think a better version of Pierre Jackson.
Shaquille McKissic - 6'3 200 SG. Plays bigger than his size, averaging 5 bounds a game, and is second on ASU in assists, at 2.7. He's their glue guy - a senior who understands his role and contributes on both sides of the ball. Not a great shooter or explosive scorer, so if they are getting a lot of points from him today, something has gone wrong.
Jermaine Marshall - 6'4 215 SG. The one Sun Devils player who can get his own shot if Carson is struggling. An excellent shooter with good size, he averages 15 points on 45% shooting and 40% from 3. As a senior with an NBA body, he can put himself in the draft discussion if ASU makes a run in March. This is his "Lose Yourself" moment - a 25+ point game against Texas or Michigan could conceivably be worth millions of dollars.
Eric Jacobsen - 6'10 230 PF. Jacobsen appears to be a starter in name only - he's only played 15 minutes their last 3 games. In that time, he has managed to commit 6 personal fouls. Jonathan Holmes should be licking his chops.
Jordan Bachynski - 7'2 250 C. In his own way, as important as Carson to this team. Bachynski is the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and he averages 4 blocks a game. I expect to see him on an NBA roster next season - for a guy with his size, he's reasonably athletic and reasonably skilled. They are at their best when they can run offense through him in the low-post, relieving some of the pressure of Carson and Marshall.
Key Bench Players:
Jonathan Gilling - 6'7 220 SF/PF. The Danish product might be the key to the Sun Devils offense. He's somewhere between a combo forward and an undersized stretch 4 - he allows them to play 4-out and spread the floor for Carson to attack the rim. A shooter who can put the ball on the ground and make plays for others. As Gilling goes, so does ASU - he's weak on defense and the glass, which is why they are weak in those categories.
Bo Barnes - 6'4 215 SG. Barnes comes into games to chew bubblegum and hoist 3's - and he runs out of bubblegum real fast. Barnes averages 3 field goals a game, with 2 of them coming from beyond the arc. That's really what ASU is about - give Jahii Carson the ball and spread the floor with shooters around him.
Keys to the Game:
1) Jonathan Holmes - If you look at their roster, you don't see anyone with the size or athleticism to match-up with Holmes. He's our oldest and most experienced player and he's the guy who has to set the table tonight. If he's hitting 3's, pounding the glass and getting his own offense, ASU doesn't have an answer for him. Put together some good games in the Tourney and people nationally might start talking about Holmes headed into his senior season.
2) Make Jahii work - Great scorers are going to get their points, there's no getting around that. In terms of pure offensive ability, Jahii is probably the best player this team has faced since Marcus Paige. The key with a guy like that is not to give him anything easy - keep him out of transition, stay in front of him and keep him off the foul line. He might hit 1-2 stepback 3's in this game, but those shots won't beat Texas.
3) Attack Bachynski early - Like a lot of shot-blockers, Bachysnki is susceptible to foul trouble. When he's out the game, ASU is a whole different team - their defense is shot and they aren't getting any offense from their 5 position without going super small. Playing in the first NCAA Tournament game of his career, emotions will likely be high - so pump-fake, see if he'll bite and get him out the game.
With the exception of their size on the wings, I think Texas matches up pretty well with ASU. Here's the concern - if you stick DeMarcus Holland on Jahii, that leaves Isaiah Taylor and Javan Felix having to defend much bigger and more experienced guards. It's all well and good to stick a bunch of length on Jahii, but that opens up the game for their other perimeter players as much as anything he does with the ball in his hands.
However, as much as Felix should be a concern for Longhorns fans, Gilling and Jacobsen should be an even bigger one for the Sun Devils faithful. Neither one of them has an answer for Holmes, and if Bachysnki gets in foul trouble, they certainly don't have an answer for Cam Ridley and Prince Ibeh. For Texas, the key is to impose their will and attack early - if they can get Bachynski out of the game, it's open season at the rim.
What you don't want to have happen is for ASU to hang around and let Jahii Carson steal it for them late. If the game comes down to the last few possessions, I trust him more than anyone on the Texas roster. He's good enough to push a team over the finish line by himself. If they ride the big men and don't let it get to that point, the Longhorns should be OK.
The game is at 8:40 Central on CBS. Hook 'em!