The ASU men’s basketball team went through some anxiety while CBS announced the 68-team field for the NCAA Tournament on Sunday.
Half the field was already revealed. With the Sun Devils (21-11, 10-8 Pac-12) losing their last three games, including an early departure out of the Pac-12 Tournament, the players weren’t sure if they were even going to be in.
They were afraid all of the work they put in over the last 18 weeks was about to go to waste.
“Anytime you don’t see your name pop up right away, it’s just nerve-wracking,” ASU senior center Jordan Bachynski said. “There’s always in the back of your mind, ‘Oh, did we make it? Did we make it?’ ”
“Arizona State” finally flashed onto the screen as the third of four regions was being revealed, setting up the No. 10-seed Sun Devils with a second-round matchup against No. 7-seed Texas in Milwaukee on Thursday.
Although ASU finally made it to its Promised Land for the first time in five seasons, the Sun Devils also talked about making a run in the NCAA Tournament instead of simply punching a ticket.
“I just know it’s a big stage, and we just have to step up and play,” ASU redshirt sophomore point Jahii Carson said. “It’s a new season.”
The Sun Devils’ opponent is no easy starter.
The Longhorns (23-10, 11-7 Big 12) have made the NCAA Tournament in 14 of the last 15 seasons. Texas coach Rick Barnes was named this season’s Big 12 Coach of the Year.
ASU coach Herb Sendek was an assistant under Barnes at Providence College in the 1988-89 season before leaving to Kentucky to join Rick Pitino. He said he’s quite familiar of how Barnes builds his teams.
“We know they’re an outstanding team, a team that’s very well coached,” Sendek said. “They’re especially impressive on the defensive end of the floor, where their numbers are among the best in the country. They also rebound the basketball exceptionally well.”
Carson drew a couple comparisons between Texas and ASU in playing styles.
“They kind of play just like us,” Carson said. “They have two bigs inside who are banging and who like to run the floor in transition. Some inconsistent shooters, but they like to penetrate and try to get guys in foul trouble. We’re going to try and play our style of game and keep the tempo our way.”
Sendek said the team is preparing for the Longhorns’ mix of zone and man-to-man defense. He compared Texas’ zone defense to Syracuse by how it revolves around the big men while spacing out the court and taking away passing lanes.
Texas boasts sophomore center Cameron Ridley and junior forward Jonathan Holmes in the frontcourt, which Sendek called a “handful.”
Sendek commended Ridley, an All-Big 12 Defensive Team selection, for his hands and his touch around the basket. Sendek also praised Holmes, an All-Big 12 Second Team selection, for his versatility and said ASU tried to recruit him while he was in high school.
But there’s one aspect of the game that Texas has an overwhelming advantage: rebounding. The Longhorns are third in the nation in offensive rebounds per game with 15.06.
In order to beat Texas, the Sun Devils know they have to battle the Longhorns on the boards. ASU knows rebounding has been its Achilles heel, as it gave up the most rebounds out of any Pac-12 this season and grabbed the fewest offensive rebounds in the entire conference.
“We need to get everyone on the boards,” Bachynski said. “There can’t just be one guy going to the glass; it’s got to be everybody, (including) the guards, getting on guys.”
Both the Sun Devils and the Longhorns are coming off disappointing exits in their conference tournaments, but the momentum will change for one of these teams come Thursday.
“Everybody has a sense of rebirth going into the tournament,” Sendek said. “I don’t think the game’s that’s recently played necessarily carries over. I’ve been around long enough to see some shining examples of that.”
This time, the Sun Devils are confident they’ll be the latest turnaround story.
“We’re part of March Madness, and you’re going to see us play some of the best basketball we’ve had all year,” Bachynski said. “I really do believe that, because we believe in ourselves.”
Matchup to watch:
- Bachynski vs. Ridley: This is a battle of two physical big men who anchor their respective defenses. ASU has a great chance to win if Bachynski disrupts the Longhorns’ offense while spreading out the Sun Devils’ offense, but Texas gets the edge if it boxes Bachynski out all game.
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