Although the NCAA tournament is still two months away, Arizona State knows its next three games could go a long way in determining how much of a factor it might be in it.
The 16th-ranked Sun Devils (14-2, 3-1) begin a tough Pac-10 road stretch Thursday at Southern California, where they’ve had little success lately.
“I think this next two weeks is going to be pretty crucial,” said Arizona State senior Jeff Pendergraph, who is averaging 13.6 points and a team-high 7.1 rebounds. “I mean, to get to the tournament, you’ve got to win on the road.”
Following the Sun Devils’ game against USC (10-5, 1-2), they head to No. 9 UCLA on Saturday and archrival Arizona on Jan. 21. The next two weeks won’t necessarily clarify the Sun Devils’ postseason fate, but will go a long way in helping - or hindering - their end-of-season resume.
“These are three big road games,” Pendergraph added. “If we want a chance to go the tournament, we’re going to have to try to find some way to pull them out.”
Arizona State has never won a Pac-10 title since it joined the conference in 1978, but it appears to be emerging as a contender three decades later.
The Sun Devils defeated Oregon 76-58 on Saturday, and have outscored their opponents by an average of 26.3 points in their three league wins.
“I think we’re moving in the right direction,” said Derek Glasser, who finished with 15 points and a career-high 11 assists for his first career double-double. “We’ve still got a few kinks to work out. It’s still early in the Pac-10 season. But I like where we’re at right now. We’ve got a tough road ahead of us these next three games.”
Pendergraph had 13 points and nine boards in Arizona State’s last win at USC, a 68-65 decision on Feb. 4, 2006. But since that victory, the team has dropped seven straight in Los Angeles - two at UCLA, two at USC and three in the Pac-10 tournament held at Staples Center.
While the Sun Devils haven’t had much success in Los Angeles lately, there’s reason to believe things could be different this time.
Arizona State’s defense is limiting opponents to 58.3 points, second in the Pac-10, while shooting 51.9 percent on the season, just a tenth of a point below national leader Utah State.
The offense is led by James Harden, who averages a conference-best 23.1 points. The 6-foot-5 sophomore, an LA product, averaged 22.0 points on 70.0 percent shooting in the three games against the Trojans last season.
While the Sun Devils have seen significant improvement this season, USC is in a bit of a funk.
After squandering a 15-point second-half lead in a 62-58 overtime loss at Oregon State on Jan. 4, the Trojans blew a six-point second-half lead in Sunday’s 64-60 loss to then-No. 10 UCLA.
“Being 1-2 in league is less of a hole than a year ago when we were 0-3,” coach Tim Floyd said. “We’ve been close a lot.”
Sunday’s loss was the Trojans’ first of the season at the Galen Center, where they had won their first eight games. They have not lost consecutive home games since Dec. 30, 2006, and Jan. 13, 2007.
Two of USC’s four losses this season have come against ranked opponents - it suffered a 73-72 defeat at then-No. 6 Oklahoma on Dec. 4 - and it has just two victories in its last 11 games against Top 25 teams.
“We still have a lot to learn,” said forward Taj Gibson, who is averaging 15.3 points.
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