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ASU basketball faces a tall task in hosting No. 5 UCLA

UCLA guard Lonzo Ball (2) attempts a steal against Arizona State guard Torian Graham (4) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Los Angeles, Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017. UCLA won 102-80. (AP Photo/Michael Owen Baker)

Arizona State has won three of its last five games, but their remaining Pac-12 games over the next two weeks are a real bear.

The Sun Devils host two current top-5 teams in No. 5 UCLA and No. 4 Arizona, and in between they face a 21-6 USC Trojans team. Up first on Thursday night is a game against the Bruins that tips off at 7:00 p.m. and can be heard on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM.

One thing that is for certain: The threes will be flying.

UCLA leads the NCAA in accuracy, shooting 42 percent from behind the arc.

Arizona State, meanwhile, is 12th in the nation in terms of three-point attempts and 30th by taking a three on 44 percent of its shots.

The bad news for ASU is that it also has allowed the 12th-most three-point attempts and the ninth-most made treys in the nation to this point. Opponents shoot 37 percent from deep against the Sun Devils, and that’s a dangerous proposition against the Bruins’ accuracy.

Most of the above came to fruition in the teams’ first meeting.

Most of it was in the Bruins’ favor, as UCLA shot 16-of-27 (59 percent) from three and 60 percent overall.

But about ASU’s 102-80 loss in Pauley Pavilion back in January: Was that just a bad game for Bobby Hurley’s crew and a wild one for the Bruins?

Arizona State found itself facing the white-hot shooting of Isaac Hamilton, who shot 9-of-14 from three and scored 33 points while freshman Lonzo Ball dished out 12 assists. Meanwhile, the Sun Devils shot 41 percent and only got to the foul stripe 11 times. It got lost that, at one point, ASU had a 25-point first-half deficit down to seven early in the second before UCLA again put the pedal down.

Then, Hurley started big man Ramon Vila at center, but lately, he’s gone small with Obinna Oleka, Torian Graham, Kodi Justice, Shannon Evans and Tra Holder spacing the floor.

Going with the smaller lineup might prove beneficial to space out the Bruins and pull shot blockers like Thomas Welsh and Ike Anigbogu away from protecting the rim.

But the easy-to-say task for Arizona State to pull the upset isn’t so easy to do: The Sun Devils will need to outshoot arguably the best offense in college basketball.

Keys to an ASU victory

Attack the rim: ASU may be undersized, but Tra Holder and Co. could do some good by driving, kicking and perhaps getting to the foul stripe. The Sun Devils are shooting 74 percent from the free throw line, third-best in school history. Holder, by the way, leads the Pac-12 in free throws made and attempted. Trips to the foul stripe will also help …

Transition defense: The turnover battle can’t go in UCLA’s favor. There’s a good chance it shouldn’t with ASU turning it over 5.2 times per game over the past six games. Continuing that pace would be a good thing against the Bruins, who play at a up-tempo pace. Transition opportunities will allow UCLA bigs to get early position against the undersized Sun Devils, or shooters to find open looks. And hey, because of the interior size advantage, UCLA might win the boards anyway. ASU might as well get their players back.

Shot selection: Like UCLA, Arizona State wants to play fast. But running a little offense to get UCLA moving on defense should help wiggle an open shot loose. It’ll also help preserve the Sun Devils’ legs for the defensive end — ASU’s short bench doesn’t help here — and avoid UCLA run outs.

Bunch up on Ball: Changing the defensive assignments on Ball — switching is welcomed — throughout the game could help keep ASU players fresh and keep the UCLA point guard and nation’s assist leader off balance. It could be very necessary for ASU players to pressure Ball well above the arc. Not only does he shoot up there, but many of his initial passes (a.k.a. assists) happen above the three-point line rather than off pick-and-rolls or drives.

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