Game time: 6:40 p.m. MST
Location: BMO Harris Bradley Center in Milwaukee, Wis.
Announcers: Ian Eagle, Jim Spanarkel and Lewis Johnson
Party like its 2009!
The Arizona State Sun Devils (21-11, 10-8) are back in the Big Dance after a four-season drought, selected as the No. 10 seed in the vaunted Midwest Region.
Though thrilled about a return to the NCAA Tournament, Herb Sendek’s squad hasn’t exactly played at the highest level of late. ASU closed its 2013-14 campaign with five losses in its last seven games — all of which came away from Wells Fargo Arena.
If there is any solace for the Sun Devils, it’s that their first round opponent, the No. 7-seeded Texas Longhorns, aren’t exactly heading into Thursday night’s contest with a whole lot of momentum.
While Rick Barnes and Co. have certainly exceeded expectations this season, the Longhorns enter the 68-team tournament riding a largely inconsistent finish to their season. Since Feb. 8, Texas is 5-6 with five losses coming in games played outside of Austin.
Here’s three keys to the No. 7 – No. 10 showdown in Milwaukee:
1. Start fast
This key feels rather repetitive for the Sun Devils since the beginning of March, but it can’t be driven home enough.
That’s because away from home, ASU has been absolutely abysmal immediately following the opening tips of games played on neutral or road sites.
In their last three games, the Sun Devils have been outscored by a combined margin of 33-1 in the first five minutes and 52-11 in their last five games.
During that five-game span, ASU has turned the ball over 10 total times, but the bigger struggle has been finishing at the rim.
If they can’t at least show some sign of life at the jump, the Sun Devils haven’t proven they can overcome their early-game slumbers.
2. Make Texas shoot the basketball
The Longhorns are led by a talented underclassmen backcourt of Isaiah Taylor (12.5 points and 3.9 assists per game) and Javan Felix (11.8 points and 2.9 assists per game), but neither has really developed much of a jump shot.
If the game becomes a halfcourt affair, ASU would be wise to keep Felix and Taylor out of the paint. Taylor shoots 39.2 percent from the field and 22.2 percent from three-point range. Felix, who plays off the ball, is even more atrocious. The sophomore only connects on 35.8 percent of his field goal attempts, though he’s a bit more proficient from downtown at 33.3 percent.
Demarcus Holland and Martez Walker are also not exactly deadly threats with the jump shot. Like Felix and Taylor, the duo can definitely get to the basket with the ball in their hands, though neither shoots better than 40.2 percent from the field.
Limit the Longhorns to attempts outside of eight to 10 feet, and the Sun Devils should be just fine.
3. Control the glass
Texas might an average-to-below average team shooting, but it is a fantastic group when it comes to rebounding the basketball.
The Longhorns, who are ranked fourth in the nation in rebounding, have three players in particular — Jonathan Holmes, Cameron Ridley and Connor Lammert — who make a living on the offensive and defensive boards.
If Jordan Bachynski is as big a non-factor on the glass as he has been over his last eight games — no double-digit rebuilding performances — Texas will have a ton of second-chance opportunities. But if he, along with Shaquille McKissic, Eric Jacobsen and Jonathan Gilling, makes a concerted effort to at the very least hold their own in the rebounding department, the Sun Devils seemingly would have the upper hand.
Noteworthy Stat No. 1: Historically, Herb Sendek has thrived in his team’s first game of the NCAA Tournament. In seven prior opening-round contests, Sendek is a pristine 6-1.
Noteworthy Stat No. 2: No. 10 seeds have advanced past their opening-round contest 52 times since the 1984-85 season.
1. Hold perimeter scorers in check
During their impressive run during the second half of the month of January, which featured four wins over top 25 teams, the Longhorns did a tremendous job of containing opposing teams’ top perimeter threats: Andrew Wiggins, Brady Haslip, DeAndre Kane, Kenny Chery and Marcus Foster.
While Jermaine Marshall comes into the NCAA Tournament sporting a 3-of-20 shooting stretch over his last two games, the senior transfer has experience this time of year and can score in bunches when he finds his groove.
Keeping Marshall at bay and limiting the number of three-point chances Jon Gilling gets will force ASU to try and rely on pounding the ball inside to Bachynski. That’s not necessarily a recipe for success at the offensive end.
2. Play to strengths, win battle of intangibles
Although the Big 12 Coach of the Year’s team is primarily anchored by a band of young guns, Barnes’ squad would be smart to look back at what worked well again other tournament-bound teams.
This season, Texas is 9-9 in 18 games played against teams that will also be dancing. Of those nine wins, five came by less than five points. In close games against quality opponents, winning the 50-50 balls and creating second-chance opportunities can tip the scales.
While the Longhorns scored more than 80 points in upset wins over North Carolina and Kansas, they likely can’t beat the Sun Devils if the game becomes a track meet. Texas needs to rely on its team defense, its knack on glass and its ability to find success in methodical, halfcourt sets.
3. Get Holmes back on track
While Felix and Taylor are collectively the proverbial straw that stirs Texas’ drink in 2013-14, junior forward Jonathan Holmes is the closest thing to its budding star.
More often than not when Holmes is right, so too are the Longhorns. And for an offensively-challenged team, Texas needs its 6-foot-8 standout to be on if it wants to advance deeper into March.
Texas’ aforementioned run through January arguably was enough to carry it all the way to postseason basketball, and deservedly so.
And during that stretch, Holmes was at his best. He tied a season-high with 23 points in an upset win over Iowa State, followed up with an 14-point, 8-rebound night in a victory over Baylor and then carried the Longhorns to a home triumph over Kansas behind 22 points on 9-of-10 shooting from the charity stripe.
The San Antonio native, however, has been hampered by a right knee injury over the last few weeks and clearly isn’t the same player. Although he missed only one game due to injury back on March 5, Holmes has been limited to a combined 33 points in his last three outings — an output that falls below his season average.
With Bachynski likely occupied with Cameron Ridley, Holmes has to take advantage of his matchup with either Jacobsen or Gilling. In fact, it’s almost imperative that he does.
A quiet night from Holmes would likely signal a one-and-done for Texas. Not a bad result for a team that has overachieved this year, but not a desired outcome for a team that still hopes of reaching the Sweet 16.
Noteworthy Stat No. 1: Texas is a perfect 19-0 this season when it holds teams to below 40 percent shooting from the field.
Noteworthy Stat No. 2: Since 1979, only one No. 7 team (Virginia, 1984) has reached the Final Four.