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November 25, 2009

ASU set to play Duke

As far as early-season measuring sticks go, this figures to be a pretty good one.

Last week, Arizona State (4-0) had to overcome an eight point deficit to TCU with under four minutes to play just to reach tonight's NIT Tip-Off semifinal at Madison Square Garden in New York City against No. 9 Duke (7 p.m. Arizona-time), but it did so and remained undefeated with an impressive 104-65 tune up win over San Francisco Friday.

The Blue Devils (4-0) have easily dispatched of UNC Greensboro, Coastal Carolina, Charlotte and Radford in succession, the closest margin of victory being 34 points in the season opener.

None of those teams has the capability of ASU, and yet it remains unclear just how capable the Sun Devils really are of taking down an impressive opponent like Duke on a national stage at this early season juncture.

Thus far, it hasn't appeared as though the Sun Devils have significantly missed last season's Pac-10 Player of the Year, James Harden, and No. 2 scorer and top rebounded, Jeff Pendergraph, as ASU has played very well at both ends of the floor and achieved a 4-0 start for just the fourth time in the last 23 seasons.

But ASU hasn't played a high quality opponent to this point, making the early season returns potentially beguiling for its fan base. That won't be the case after tonight's game, which will be played against a program that is among the most revered in college basketball and a team that shared the top spot with North Carolina in the preseason ACC Media Poll.

Sun Devil coach Herb Sendek has an extensive history against Duke and its longstanding coach Mike Krzyzewski, having spent 10 seasons in close proximity as a conference foe while head coach at North Carolina State from 1996-2006.

For his career, Sendek is a paltry 3-21 against the Blue Devils -- a primary reason many in Raleigh wanted to see his tenure there end at the time of his decision to jump to ASU -- but to put Krzyzewski's dominance during that time period in perspective it's important to note that in that 10-year stretch, the entire ACC beat Duke just 29 times, led by Maryland with eight and North Carolina with seven.

This season the Blue Devils are largely an experienced, veteran group coming off a 30-7 (11-5) Sweet-16 team last years. They are led by wings Kyle Singler, a 6-foot-8 junior, and Jon Scheyer, a 6-foot-5 senior, and 6-foot-2 junior point guard Nolan Smith.

But Duke is extremely balanced with its scoring, as five players are averaging double figures through the team's first four games, with the aforementioned three joined by sophomore forward Miles Plumlee and freshman guard Andre Dawkins.

The Blue Devils are historically a strong 3-point shooting team that is heavily reliant on the outside shot and that remains so this season, with top three scorers Smith, Singler and Scheyer, along with Dawkins being the primary shooters.

It is an interesting matchup considering ASU led the Pac-10 last season in 3-point field goal defense and is also a team that substantially relies upon its shooters to effect success in the win column. Duke is shooting .457 from 3-point range thus far, while the Sun Devils are .494 from the distance, with both teams among the best nationally in the category at this early juncture.

But while the teams appears to be somewhat comparable in terms of their capacity to shoot the ball, the Blue Devils are a much more proven offensive team from a diversity and explosiveness standpoint. While ASU reached the 100-point mark for the first time in the Sendek-era, Duke achieved that mark in each of its last two outings.

It should be as big a test of ASU's zone defense as the program has faced since Sendek too over, and provide a much better idea of exactly where the Sun Devils stand as they go through what initially was expected to be a transitional season following the loses of Harden and Pendergraph.


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