Arizona State is headed to Dayton in order to advance to Denver in the search for rarified air.
The Sun Devils open NCAA Tournament play against Nevada in a First Four matchup Wednesday at the University of Dayton Arena.
Win, and they would advance to the first round, and a date with TCU in Denver, for the first time since 2019.
Win there, and they would move into the round of 32, and a likely collision with Gonzaga, for the first time since 2009, when their starting backcourt featured a sophomore named James Harden.
Win there, and they would move to the Sweet 16 — hello, UCLA — for the first time 1995, the height of their success under coach Bill Frieder.
But perhaps we’re getting a teeny-tiny bit ahead of ourselves.
First, the Sun Devils must handle Nevada in perhaps the best coaching matchup of former college guards, ASU’s Bobby Hurley and Nevada’s Steve Alford, in March Madness history.
Hurley is seven years younger and, in our opinion, would be an 8-point favorite against Alford one-on-one.
His team, however, is a mere 2.5-point favorite on Wednesday.
We like ASU’s chances, for four reasons:
1. Blueprint for success
Nevada’s leading scorer is Jarod Lucas, who averages 17.3 points and has led the team in scoring in 15 of 32 games.
ASU has plenty of options for defending the 6-foot-4 guard and knows him well. Lucas spent three seasons at Oregon State and played five games against the Sun Devils.
In those five, he was held to 31.5 percent shooting from the field and 34.6 percent from 3-point range.
The last time he faced ASU, in February 2022, he was 0-of-6 behind the line.
2. Cambridge factor
ASU’s leading scorer, Desmond Cambridge (13.7 ppg), spent the previous two seasons in Reno. The Wolf Pack will know his tendencies, and he’ll know their defensive approach.
A better question: How will Cambridge handle the emotional piece? If he forces the issue offensively and takes bad shots, it undermines ASU’s cause.
But Cambridge is a man: He graduated from high school in 2017 and attended Brown for two years before heading to Nevada — this is his sixth season of college basketball.
We suspect he’ll handle the situation with channeled maturity.
3. Neutral-court edge
The Sun Devils are comfortable away from home, with a 5-1 record in games played on neutral courts this season. They beat VCU and Michigan in Brooklyn and Creighton in Las Vegas.
Oh, and they beat Arizona in Tucson a few weeks ago.
Meanwhile, Nevada is just 2-2 in neutral-court affairs, with victories over Tulane and Akron and a loss to San Jose State last week in the opening round of the Mountain West tournament.
The Wolf Pack isn’t playing well anywhere, in fact, having dropped three in a row — all of them to teams that were not candidates for the NCAA Tournament field.
They haven’t beaten a tournament team since late January.
4. Minimum bar
The Sun Devils are a dynamite defensive team, holding opponents to 39.8 percent shooting from the field and forcing 14.4 turnovers per game.
But they are prone to poor stretches on offense — stretches that can last the full 40 minutes and turn their games into ghastly grinders of the highest order.
Nevada’s halfcourt defense is fairly stout, so the Sun Devils must convert turnovers into transition baskets. That process starts with point guard Frankie Collins and his decisions in the open court.
Then again, the Devils shoot better from 3-point range on neutral floors (36.4 percent) than they do overall (31.4 percent).
Hit that percentage Wednesday, and they should win handily.
Otherwise, it could go down to the wire.
To the picks …
Lines taken Tuesday morning from Vegas Insider.
For entertainment purposes only.
Nevada (+2.5) vs. Arizona State (Wednesday): We won’t place responsibility entirely on Cambridge’s shoulders, but ASU’s best wins correlate closely with his best games. If Nevada limits his opportunities, an alternate scorer must emerge. Close to the end, but the Sun Devils find a way forward. Pick: Arizona State
No. 15 Princeton (+13.5) vs. No. 2 Arizona (Thursday): Princeton scores in the 70s but will attempt to slow the pace and prevent Arizona from scoring easy baskets in transitions. As always when facing the Tigers in the NCAAs — they are one of the all-time Cinderellas — the key is early control and avoiding late pressure. Pick: Arizona
No. 13 Louisiana (+10) vs. No. 4 Tennessee (Thursday): The Volunteers are without point guard Zakai Zeigler (knee) and won’t be the same team without their engine. Not only will the Ragin’ Cajuns cover the spread, they have a real chance to win outright. Pick: Louisiana
UNC Asheville (+17.5) vs. UCLA (Thursday): The Bulldogs dominated the Big South but simply aren’t equipped to take advantage of UCLA’s injury-depleted defense. This should not be in doubt midway through the second half, but the point spread is a bit too large for our liking. Pick: UNC Asheville
USC (+2.5) vs. Michigan State (Friday): The Spartans are not elite on either offense or defense, but they are solid on both ends and steeled by a season of Big Ten play. USC needs first-rate performances from guards Boogie Ellis and Drew Petersen. One won’t be enough. Pick: Michigan State
Grand Canyon (+15.5) vs. Gonzaga (Friday): The WAC champions have a high-level scorer in guard Rayshon Harrison but are weak defensively and stand little chance of slowing the Zags. Then again, Gonzaga isn’t elite defensively, leaving the door ajar for GCU to hang around long enough to make it interesting. Pick: Grand Canyon
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