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March 11, 2010

ASU needs win in Pac-10 opener for NCAA hopes

In a typical year, a 22-9 overall record and 12-6 second-place finish in the Pac-10 would be good enough for Arizona State to have already virtually locked up an NCAA Tournament berth.

This is not a typical year.

The Sun Devils enter their quarterfinal Pac-10 Tournament game against No. 7 seed Stanford Thursday at 7:20 p.m. at Staples Center in Los Angeles in need of at least one more win and possibly two more if they're going to have their dance card punched for a second straight season for the first time since 1980-81.

Conference RPI is a big deal when it comes time for the NCAA Selection Committee to send at-large bubble teams into hysterics on Sunday, and the Pac-10, having underwhelmed in the non-conference schedule, is only the 8th best league, or the lowest its been since 2004.

The good news for ASU is that other than in 2009, in each of the last 10 seasons the No. 8 RPI conference has had at least two teams awarded Tournament bids. The bad news is that during that span, the team with the lowest RPI was Arizona in 2004, which came in at No. 44.

ASU's current RPI of 54 means its position as an at-large candidate is tenuous at best. No team with an RPI north of 50 in the No. 8 conference has made the Field of 65 (even when it was 64) in the last decades without winning its league tournament.

So when the Sun Devils say they need to continue winning, they know it's true; they mean it.

"It's tough beating anybody three times. Stanford's a good team, it's going to be a tough game," senior point guard Derek Glasser said. "We know we need this one. We're going down there with the mindset of trying to win the conference tournament and we've just got to be prepared."

Stanford (13-17 overall) is a good matchup for the Sun Devils. In the first meeting between the two teams, in Tempe, ASU raced to a 54-17 halftime edge before comfortably winning. Last month's contest at Palo Alto was much closer, with the Cardinal leading by as much as 11 in the first half before Eric Boateng led the Sun Devils to victory with a conference record-tying 11-of-11 from the field.

The Cardinal have a serious lack of post talent, which is an issue given the way Boateng has played of late, particularly when they last played. But they have two of league's top scorers, led by versatile 6-foot-7 forward Landry Fields, who averages 22.2 points and 8.7 rebounds per game. 3-point specialist Jeremy Green is capable of putting a lot of points in the board, and is averaging 16.9 a game.

They jumped on us early at Stanford so we know they're not scared of us," Glasser said of the Cardinal, losers of eight of their last 11 games. "They're going to come in throwing punches because if they don't win, they're not going to the tournament. So they're also playing for a lot.

"We play so many conference games. You kind of get used to playing the same teams but I think it's single elimination, the team that's hot wins. It may not be the team in the conference that wins it every year but it's the team that playing the best and the teams that are the playing the best go to the tournament at this time of year. That's what we're trying to be. We've won six of seven so we're playing pretty good. The only loss we have is to the conference champions in the last seven games. I think we're right there. We just have to put it together for three games."

A win over Stanford would likely give the Sun Devils a matchup against No. 3 seed Washington in the second round. The Huskies finished the regular season a game behind ASU in the conference standings, but with a slightly higher RPI and they split the head-to-head series. It's led to speculation the winner of a potential semifinals contest could be in the NCAA Tournament, with the loser among the last teams on the outside looking it.

Most of the key players on this ASU squad know what is feels like to just miss an NCAA invite, as two years ago they were quite possibly the team with the best profile of any that didn't make the field as an at-large entrant. It's something they're desperate to avoid this time around.

"It just comes down to how hard we're going to play and how bad we want it," Glasser said. "There's no tricky plays. Maybe we'll have one new play put in and the other team will have one new play put in. But other than that we kind of know what they're going to throw at us, they know what we're going to throw at them and there's really no secrets at this point, it's just about playing hard."


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