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March 4, 2010Arizona State's chance at a share of the Pac-10 regular season championship still exists, even as it watched Cal celebrate clinching a share of the title following its win over the Sun Devils in Berkeley Saturday.
True, the Sun Devils need to not only beat USC and UCLA this week, but have Stanford knock off Cal Saturday, and so it's a long shot scenario. Even then, it would only be a share of the title and Cal swept ASU this season.
But considering ASU hasn't finished second in the Pac-10 since 1981, even that would be a remarkable accomplishment and it's something they control entirely.
"It's a very important week for us," senior center Eric Boateng said. "It's very important that we perform well and we compete. It's very important that we finish off strong and USC's going to be a very tough game."
The Trojans dominated ASU in the teams' first meeting this season Jan. 2. In fact, the 47-37 loss was one of the worst all-time in Pac-10 history for the Sun Devils and it led coach Herb Sendek to transition his team from a sets-based offense to a free flowing motion.
It was a move that paid dividends for the Sun Devils, who have gone 10-4 in league play following the opening weekend sweep in Los Angeles.
"I think they're one of the best defensive teams in the country," Sendek said of the Trojans. "They're really hard to score against. Their personnel is geared for great defense and coach (Kevin) O'Neill has deployed them in such a way, and obviously developed habits that make them extremely difficult to go against. When you score a basket sometimes you feel like you should get six points and get to kick an extra point, it should be worth seven when you score against them."
Until last week, USC remained in the hunt for a Pac-10 title of its own, but now that it's been eliminated from the race, there is talk the Trojans may be on the verge of a let down considering they have a self-imposed post-season ban that includes the conference tournament.
Even O'Neill has admitted the possibility his club may not be able to sustain its recent effort given the overall dynamic.
"Until this past weekend, we were playing for something, a tangible goal of some sort," first-year USC coach Kevin O'Neill said. "Now we don't have any of that. We haven't shot the ball at all the last three games. Basically, we're a little fried as a team. I don't know how we'll react over these last two games being that we've got nothing really to play for."
But while Trojans don't have much to play for, the Sun Devils certainly do. Not only do they have an outside shot at a share of the conference title, they probably need to sweep this week in order to have a reasonable chance at making the NCAA Tournament without needing to win the Pac-10 Tournament next week in Los Angeles.
"We just have to take care of business," senior guard Derek Glasser said. "We're not really focused on anybody but ourselves. We still we feel have a chance to make the NCAA Tournament. We know how critical these last two games are."