It’s gameday! For the second straight year, the Mountain West will tip-off its first game of the NCAA Tournament with a First Four matchup, this time between the Nevada Wolf Pack and the Arizona State Sun Devils in Dayton, Ohio at 9:10 p.m. ET. Let’s preview the Sun Devils, who have a couple familiar faces, shall we?
Projected Sun Devil Rotation:
Guard: DJ Horne
Guard: Frankie Collins
Guard: Desmond Cambridge
Wing: Devan Cambridge
Center: Warren Washington
For the most part, this has been Arizona State’s starting five the entire season. Frankie Collins is their two-way point guard who’s their top table-setter and one of the top rebounding guards in this field. The former Michigan transfer is athletic and generates quality rim pressure, oftentimes using his leverage as dump-offs or kick-outs to its 3-point threats. He’s averaging 9.9 points on 39.4 percent shooting — and just 53.2 percent at the rim (3.4 attempts) — and only shot 74 3-pointers this season at a 33.8 percent clip. So he’s not very efficient, but he’s an effective point guard nonetheless.
Desmond Cambridge, as we know, is a flamethrower. There are nights where you could stick all five guys — plus an outstretched Tacko Fall — in his grill and he’ll find a way to rise up and convert over you. That said, there’s other nights where the 6-foot-4 guard struggles with his efficiency. On the season, he shot just 39.5 percent from the floor and 32.6 percent 3-point range on 7.6 triple tries per game. But perhaps the most polished — and underrated — part of his game is defense. Cambridge is very handsy at the point-of-attack, has good lateral quickness and is instinctual — plus is an adept shot-blocker for his size.
Horne is Arizona State’s second-most potent scorer and another one of its more frequent long-range shooters; Horne possesses a 50.9 percent 3-point rate, where he’s converted on 33.2 percent of his attempts, with 26.4 percent of his attempts coming in the mid-range at a 33.0 percent clip. It still doesn’t take much — if anything — to see the 6-foot-1 get hot, however, so the Wolf Pack can’t leave him with a sliver of space. His confidence never wavers.
Devan Cambridge is arguably the more athletic of the Cambridge brothers, but does a lot more of the dirty work offensive of defensively without the ball in hands: He sets screens, he rebounds, he boxes out, he can defend practically anyone on the floor. He’s a swiss army knife.
Washington anchors the Sun Devil defense, a top-30 unit in the nation. He is a very willing rim protector, finishing third in the Pac-12 in blocks (55). If he’s within 10 feet of the basket, it’s more likely than not Washington will likely attempt to block your shot at or near the rim. I’m going to be interested to see how and where Hurley deploys Washington: Will he begin/stick on Baker, who’s one of the best low-post threats in the Mountain West, but can also space the floor? Or does Hurley elect to use him as a weak-side roamer, sticking him on Coleman or Powell/McIntosh/Pettigrew when they’re on the floor?
Guard: Austin Nunez
Forward: Alonzo Gaffney
Forward: Jamiya Neal
The Sun Devils will also play Luther Muhammad and Duke Brennan, but let’s stick with the top-8.
The most intruging player on this bench unit, in my view, is Gaffney. He’s not a natural floor spacer, but he makes a remarkable impact defensively that doesn’t always show up in the box score. He’s a switchable, versatile defender; he’s 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-4 wingspan, even though it looks even longer than that and can protect the rim. Keep an eye on him as a matchup to deploy on Blackshear or Lucas flying off screens.
What does Arizona State do well?
Arizona State’s defense ranked top-30 in adjusted defensive rating, including No. 23 in defense since Feb. 9, after they had a stretch where they lost five of six. Over their last 10 games, they’ve held opponents to a 48.4 effective field-goal percentage and turn opponents over 21 percent of the time, which is a top-35 mark in the country. Arizona State doesn’t have a big weak link defensively, or someone that Nevada can easily pick on.
As I noted above, the Sun Devils are very good at protecting the rim. Teams shoot at a sub-44 percent clip inside-the-arc, the sixth-best clip in the nation — including 55.7 percent at the rim, nearly seven points below Division-I average. Arizona State also rejected 13.2 percent of opponents’ attempts, a top-25 mark nationally. Washington spearheads that, but it’s a collective effort.
Its stable of lead guards — particularly Cambridge and Horne — do a good job taking care of the ball and are a big reason why they turned the rock over at the second-lowest clip in the Pac-12. If they can operate with a high pace and take care of the rock, they are going to have a big advantage in the possession battle that could be the difference in the game.
What does Arizona State not do well?
The Sun Devils are a high-volume, below-average 3-point shooting team. They sported the Pac-12’s 3rd-highest 3-point rate, attempting nearly 40 percent of its field goal attempts from distance, but only shot 31.4 percent from deep, a bottom-50 mark across Division-I. Only one rotation player — Nunez — shot above 34.0 percent from deep, but he only attempted 1.9 per game (4.6 per 40). Collectively, they’re not a good 3-point shooting unit, but who knows how that fare in a do-or-die game (especially if Cambridge heats up).
It’s also not just from deep—they are a below average shooting team in all areas, sporting 47.9 2-point percentage (No. 274), a 68.9 free-throw percentage (No. 288) and a 47.5 effective field goal percentage (No. 308).
Due to their over-commitment on blocking shots and protecting the rim, the Sun Devils surrender too many offensive rebounds. Nevada doesn’t rebound the ball well offensively, but has capable offensive rebounders in Nick Davidson and Darrion Williams, who could earn second-chance opportunities and reward the Pack extra possessions. Its offensive rebounding will be especially important on long rebounds — Arizona State forces teams to shoot a ton of 3s, and Nevada isn’t the best 3-point shooting team outside of Lucas, so earning every possession they can get will be vital.
Defend without fouling:
The free-throw line could be where Nevada could earn a bulk of its points. Arizona State does not defend well without fouling, ranking in the top-65 in fouls per game (18.5) and are bottom-third in opponent free-throw rate (33.4). Nevada is one of the most potent free-throw shooting teams in the country, so look for them to get to the line plenty in Wednesday’s matchup.
Official prediction: Nevada 67, Arizona State 66