Well, it goes without saying that tomorrow morning's game is pretty big. If the Oregon game had gone the other way, we'd be looking at it as gravy. But since it didn't, this is our chance to cement ourselves among the conference favorites in what has already been a predictably insane conference race. (Stanford goes 2-0 against USC and a UCLA team that just beat Cal on the road? Yeah, whatever.)
In looking at the kenpom.com scouting report of the Sun Devils, I discovered some striking similarities between ASU and another opponent the Cougs have played. I realize the screen shots are small, but you don't need to be able to read the numbers clearly to see what I'm about to point out, thanks to Pomeroy's nice color coding. Check them out side-by-side:
The team on the right is Arizona State. The team on the left? Arizona.
Now, there's no doubt the Sun Devils are better than the Wildcats, and it's equally obvious their stylistic difference are huge (in terms of pace and defensive philosophy). But if you look at their four factors, they're actually pretty similar in terms of their strengths and weaknesses -- it's just that ASU is a lot better at their strengths.
I point this out because the areas the Cougs were able to exploit against Arizona should be the same areas they're able to exploit tomorrow.
For example, for all their defensive prowess, the Sun Devils rebound only at about the same rate as the Wildcats.
Offensively, that means that the offensive rebounds the Cougs used to their advantage on Friday should be there tomorrow. (Although Washington only picked up 18.7 percent of available offensive rebounds, far below their average; not sure why.) If you're not sure just how important offensive rebounding is to our offense, check this out: Our offensive rebounding percentage has a +.60 correlation to our offensive efficiency, meaning it has a pretty direct effect on our offensive output. For comparison, Washington is a +.68, and you know how important it is to them. It's become that important to us.
Defensively, that means the Sun Devils aren't likely to be able to take advantage of the Cougs' small front line for many second chance opportunities. In fact, they've had some really low offensive rebounding rates against their decent opponents. They've been between 25 and 28 in all three Pac-10 games so far, well below the national average. That's a big dang deal, for reasons I'll explain in a moment.
Additionally, the Sun Devils send their opponents to the free throw line at roughly the same rate as the Wildcats. Given the fact that the game against Arizona was one giant parade to the free throw line, it's reasonable to expect that our offense could once again get a boost from free throws.
So what is it that ASU does so well that allows it to be so much more successful than the Wildcats?
Well, as the guru of advanced basketball stats Dean Oliver will tell you, ultimately it all comes down to shooting. We like to say there are Four Factors, but really it's one factor and its three stepchildren. And the Devils to an exceptional job with shooting -- on both sides of the ball.
You can chalk up most of the difference in offensive efficiency between Arizona and ASU to simple better shooting. Because of that, they shoot 3s at the eighth most frequent rate in the country, and it often pays off in spades for them. While the Cougs have gotten much better at defending shots on the perimeter, this is still a dangerous team from outside and the potential exists that they could get hot and blow our doors off.
This is also why it's so important that we don't give the Sun Devils a lot of second chance opportunities. Unlike the Wildcats, ASU is a lot more likely to make you pay given another shot at the basket.
Defensively, they also defend opponents' shooting much better than the Wildcats. One interesting thing is that when you look at kenpom.com, their defensive fingerprint is "inconclusive." Of course, we all know the Sun Devils play exclusively a 2-3 zone. One reason the calculations might be fooled is because ASU's opponents actually shoot 3s at a below-average rate -- unusual for a zone defense. That's a good thing for the Devils, though, because where they really excel is defending 2-point shots. So, again, the Cougs' best strategy might be making sure they draw a foul when they get in the lane.
There's one other area where ASU really excels -- forcing turnovers. Yup. If we get careless with the ball, as we've been known to do, this will be a blowout. We won't survive it as we did on Friday.
Without a doubt, this is our toughest test since the Gonzaga/Kansas State two-step in the beginning of December. Honestly, if you forced me to make a call, I'd say this is a loss. But there's also no doubt the Cougs are better than they were then. How much better? I guess we'll find out tomorrow.