Why is this game at 10:00 am on a Friday? Because Friday is the "Sparky's Kids to College Field Trip" game. This seems like a silly idea, but in a way it makes sense - the type of kids who would skip school for a basketball game might be the type of kids Arizona State would actively recruit.
As a result, very few people will be able to see the game. I suspect it will be streamed online for Pac-12 network subscribers who are either unemployed or can take two hours off on Friday. I'm not one of those people, unfortunately, so you won't get much after-the-fact insight from me.
For my money, the biggest surprise of the 2014 Pac-12 season has been the success at Arizona State. In case you've forgotten, the Sun Devils were bad last year. 13-18 (5-13), ninth place in the conference bad. Maybe not irredeemably bad, but certainly bad enough that there weren't many reasons for optimism.
And yet now the Sun Devils are 14-2, with a national ranking and a top 10 RPI. They are undefeated at home, including wins over North Carolina, Syracuse, Miami, UCLA and USC. Depending on how you feel about altitude, this is the toughest conference game that isn't against Stanford.
Winning this game sends a message that Cal is still at least the 2nd best team in the conference, and the primary challenger to Stanford. Losing . . . would be totally understandable, and wouldn't really hurt from an NCAA resume perspective. But it would hurt Cal's chances for a Pac-12 title. I don't need to remind anybody that any single non-Stanford loss last year would have given the outright title to the Cardinal. And I don't expect that to change this year.
Why has Arizona State gotten so much better? Probably because of the addition of three players to the rotation that weren't available last year. Deja Mann is the obvious addition - she adds immediate value on both ends as a ball handler and scorer on offense and an excellent perimeter defender on defense. But two relatively unheralded recruits, forwards Sophie Brunner and Kelsey Moos, have added scoring punch as well.
Those additions and growth from younger players as resulted in a near across the board improvement in ASU's statistical profile. Offensive and defensive efficiency are both vastly improved. Shooting, forced turnovers, rebounds . . . nearly every single basic category. Maybe I shouldn't have underestimate a coach who took ASU to the Elite Eight?
Our Computer Overlords Predict
Sagarin Predictor: Arizona State by 2.94
Most computer models have Cal and Arizona State as roughly evenly matched teams, and thus predict that home field advantage is the difference. Again, like Colorado, the computers can't factor in the impact of Gennifer Brandon's return to Cal's rotation, and after three weeks of practice and a solid 20 minute performance against Utah one must wonder how close Gen is to returning to the starting lineup for starter's minutes.
Keys to the game
Press, reach, harass, annoy - Arizona State's one obvious weakness, the one area in which they haven't improved from last year, is offensive turnovers. 24.5% of Arizona State possessions end in a turnover, for an average of 20 a game. That's a huge number, and a testament to ASU's rebounding and shooting abilities that it hasn't totally sunk their offense.
Of course, Cal is a team built to take advantage of turnovers by turning them into opportunities to score in transition. That's basically how Cal beat Arizona State in Tempe two years ago, when Arizona State turned the ball over 21 times, including 10 Brittany Boyd steals. If Boyd and the rest of the Bears are ready to crowd passing lanes, jar balls lose from iffy ball-handlers and go to the races, it should be a key source of offense for Cal.
Composure on the ball - Conversely, ASU forces lots of turnovers themselves. As always, ASU will substitute early and often, with the goal of keeping the entire rotation fresh so that they can play their pressure defense throughout the entire game. Just like Boyd excels as a disruptor on defense, excels against teams that pressure her when she has the ball in her hand, and it's a big reason why Cal is a top 50 team at avoiding turnovers. Cal wants to keep total turnovers closer to 10, ASU wants it up around 20. Whichever team comes closer probably wins.
Gennifer Brandon all over the glass - Gen is ready for a double digit rebound game. I have no doubt. Again, ASU is an excellent rebounding team. But Cal can (should?) be better. Gen is the key to outrebounding the Devils, and if it happens, advantage Bears.