Can Arizona State defend like this outside Tempe?
Just nine months after finishing 2-16 in the Pac-10, Arizona State is 3-0 in conference and getting the love. What's not to like? Herb Sendek bids fair to be the Tubby Smith of the Pac-10, succeeding nicely in his current gig after being run out of town at his last one. Freshman James Harden is virtually indistinguishable from Eric Gordon on paper. Each accounts for the lion's share of his team's possessions and yet achieves outrageously high offensive efficiency by driving the ball, Memphis-style, into the paint out of half-court sets. Big man Jeff Pendergraph not only makes his twos and clears the glass, he goes to the line more frequently than even Harden and shoots a very un-big-man-like 82 percent there. Best of all, ASU has won their first three conference games thanks to great defense. Granted, it helped the Devils' defensive numbers that they caught Arizona without Jerryd Bayless. Still, to hold three Pac-10 opponents to a combined 0.86 points per trip means you're doing something right.
The issue now is what we will see from this team over its next two games: at Cal tonight, and at Stanford Saturday night. The last time Arizona State played a true road game, the Devils lost by 15 to Nebraska. If this team has grown as much as everyone says it has, winning one of those two games should be a reasonable goal.
No D here, but Ole Miss should be really fun to watch
Speaking of turnarounds, feast your eyes on the 180 that's taken place in Oxford, Mississippi. If you like your points frequent and plentiful, you're going to like Ole Miss games this season. The Rebels score in bunches...and so do their opponents. Even a hitherto somnambulant LSU offense was able to record 71 points in just 64 possessions against the charitable defenders of Ole Miss. The Rebels won that game anyway, and they did it the same way they've won 15 of 16, by taking care of the ball and crashing the offensive glass. The thing that's striking about Ole Miss games is that they contain no turnovers. This team has played two SEC games in which there have been a total, for both teams, of 36 turnovers. That averages out to just nine per team per game. The Rebels don't turn it over, nor do their opponents. That means points will be scored.
There would be even more points scored if Andy Kennedy could convince his team to give Dwayne Curtis some more touches. Be that as it may, if you saw the Tennessee game, you know that freshman Chris Warren looks like the hoops equivalent of a growth stock. He doesn't have the glittering efficiency numbers of Gordon, Harden, Bayless, et al, nor should he: he's struggled at times this season. Still, his confidence is palpable and at times against the Volunteers he was almost single-handedly keeping his team in the game. Warren is a point guard who takes more shots than any of his teammates. If you're looking for a player who, by 2010, will look something like Acie Law, you could do worse than to direct your gaze toward the land of Faulkner, Grisham, and zero turnovers.
The Cardinals were left for dead when David Padgett and Juan Palacios went down with injuries, yet Rick Pitino's team is just a one-point loss to Cincinnati away from sitting alone atop the Big East standings. Tonight, the Cards will host Marquette in a game that should go a long way toward further defining the top tier of the conference. Padgett and Palacios are back and Louisville, without question the best unranked team in the country, looks like a solid bet to lay claim to the best defense in the Big East come March. After three conference games, opponents are scoring just 0.84 points per possession. Teams that play the Cardinals don't make twos and don't get offensive boards, and you can thank Earl Clark for both data points. Clark and the rest of the defense will get a real test from Marquette. Their odd and ugly game against Seton Hall notwithstanding, the Eagles have been scoring with admirable efficiency in Big East play, thanks in large part to excellent three-point shooting against opponents that have gone by the book and played zone against Tom Crean's team. (Pro bono advice for Lazar Hayward: shoot more.) This game promises to be a collision of strengths: Louisville defense against Marquette offense. If the Cardinals win they'll get a ton of insta-hype. They'll deserve it.
Remember D.J. White?
The top performer in the Big Ten so far this year has been an Indiana player, just not the one you're thinking. In the span of one season D.J. White has gone from solid to shamefully underrated:
D.J. White, Then and Now
2FG pct. 51.2 63.4
Offensive Rating 107.6 120.9
Defensive Reb. Pct. 19.0 27.8
Block Pct. 8.3 6.8
White's numbers on offense have doubtless been helped along by the arrival of Eric Gordon, as teams preoccupied with defending the freshman have given the senior more room to maneuver. Still, the biggest change has been on defense, where White's gone from average to downright Al Horford-esque on the defensive glass. The improvement has been purchased at the cost of a few blocks but if you're Kelvin Sampson you'll take that trade in a heartbeat. (The list of BCS-conference players with better defensive rebounding percentages is as follows: Michael Beasley, DeVon Hardin, Kevin Love. That's it.) White will help his draft stock tremendously if he carries numbers like this through to the end of the senior season.
One last thing: the next time we hear the daily invocation of a senior who's allegedly "trying too hard" and "thinking too much about the next level," can we please cite White as the counter-example? Thank you.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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