Sun Devils amped up for game against No. 2 Ducks


Sun Devils amped up for game against No. 2 Ducks

TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) Arizona State has exceeded most expectations in Todd Graham's first season as coach, leading the Pac-12 South after winning five of its first six games.

The real test of how good the Sun Devils are will come over the second half of a season that's backloaded with tough games, starting Thursday night against No. 2 Oregon in the desert.

Everything Arizona State has done to this point is great, but the so-far-unstoppable Ducks represent a huge step up in competition, a true measuring stick that could either knock the Sun Devils down a few notches or be a huge thrust forward for the program.

``This week is a little different deal,'' Graham said Monday. ``This is as good a football team as there is in the country and they have some dynamic players. We are excited for the opportunity.''

The Oregon game has loomed large on Arizona State's schedule for weeks. Some of the Sun Devils' players admitted they had looked past Colorado last week in anticipation of facing the Ducks.

Arizona State (5-1, 3-0 Pac-12) regained its focus after leading by just three at halftime in Boulder on Thursday and ran past the Buffaloes for a 51-17 win.

Now the Sun Devils get their chance against Oregon, one they hope isn't one of those careful-what-you-wish-for moments.

Oregon (6-0, 3-0) has been the dominant team in the Pac-12 under coach Chip Kelly, becoming the second program to win three straight titles since the conference expanded to 10 teams in 1978. The Ducks played for a national championship in 2011 against Auburn and won the Rose Bowl last season for the first time in 95 years.

Good as its run has been, Oregon may have its best team in Kelly's four seasons, even after losing its starting quarterback and its Heisman-finalist running back to the NFL draft.

The Ducks have been unapproachable so far this season, their closest game a 17-point win over Fresno State. Oregon is second nationally in scoring with 52.33 points per game and has done it quickly, with 24 of its 39 scoring drives lasting less than two minutes, including 14 that have taken 60 seconds or less.

The Ducks are third in the initial BCS standings, eighth in total offense (541.67 yards) and have won nine straight games, the second-longest streak in the FBS behind defending national champion and top-ranked Alabama.

Oregon also has dominated Arizona State recently, winning seven straight games over the Sun Devils, including four in Tempe while averaging over 43 points per game.

``It's a big-time matchup,'' Arizona State linebacker Brandon Magee said after the victory over Colorado. ``I hope it's going to be sold out. I'm excited to play them; who wouldn't be? We're ready.''

It is expected to be a sellout - a rarity at Arizona State - and the school is calling for a blackout, with everyone in the stands wearing black.

Graham is hoping the atmosphere will at least slow down the Ducks in their first true road test of the season.

Oregon has been good on the road, winning 11 straight since losing at Stanford in 2009, the longest streak in the nation.

The Ducks haven't had much time away from home this season, though, playing five of their first six games in Eugene while the other game, against Washington State, was at a somewhat neutral site in Seattle, where numerous Ducks fans filled the stands.

Facing a strong defensive team - Arizona State is fifth nationally in total defense and ninth in scoring - in what should be a raucous atmosphere will certainly be new to quarterback Marcus Mariota.

He was a redshirt last season, so obviously didn't play, and hasn't had to face a whole of adversity this year as the first freshman to start at quarterback for the Ducks since Danny O'Neil in 1991.

Mariota has been good so far, ranking second in the Pac-12 in passer efficiency (156.43) while completing 68 percent of his passes for 1,301 yards and 15 touchdowns with five interceptions. He's been surrounded by some of the most dynamic players in college football - handing the ball off to Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas never gets old - but Graham is hoping a bit of road rage from the Sun Devils' fans may rattle Mariota.

``The crowd is a factor,'' Graham said. ``I encourage our crowd, when they are on offense to try to break the windows out of the new building over there. Let's get it loud.''

Pull this one off, and the Sun Devils will make some noise of their own.

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Kyrie Irving raises his leadership game while dropping daggers on Wizards

Kyrie Irving raises his leadership game while dropping daggers on Wizards

CAPITAL ONE ARENA -- Chants of “M.V.P” reverberated inside the Wizards’ home venue. The All-Star point guard dazzled the crowd with stylish plays and gutsy choices. He stumped the opposition by sinking shots with defenders offering no ground. 

Such proclamations from the masses made sense, except they weren’t for hometown hero John Wall.

Kyrie Irving stole the show. The Celtics star and burgeoning team leader dropped the Wizards with 12 of his 38 points coming in overtime. He left Scott Brooks dumbfounded after hitting two crushing 3-pointers in the final 39 seconds as Washington fell 130-125 Wednesday night.

“Great players make great shots, amazing shots (in big moments),” said Brooks with a tone of a head coach yet to fully process how Irving downed his side.

Other players shredded Washington’s defense this season. Often that occurred because the Wizards lacked energy and defensive connectivity. Despite a few lapses at times, that wasn’t the case in the first meeting of the season between the two Eastern Conference rivals. Against Irving, even the tiniest of cracks were exploited.

Irving didn’t just score 12 in the extra period, but Boston’s final dozen points in the Celtics’ seventh consecutive win. Half came on a pair of bombs.

“He makes one, maybe it’s a different game. He made both, it’s tough to overcome,” Brooks said after Washington’s losing streak reached three games. “It was a great game. We fought. It could have gone either way. Unfortunately, it didn’t go our way.”

With the Wizards leading 123-122, Irving nearly fumbled the ball away on the left wing with Wall nearly nose-to-nose. The NBA’s best ball-handler corraled the attempted runaway, rose and drained the heavily contested 3-pointer.

After Wall tied the game with one of his numerous faster-than-fast driving layups, Irving put the Celtics up for good with a 31-footer that found the bottom of the net with 17.3 seconds left.

“Just trying to win the game, honestly, trying to get enough separation,” said Irving, who sat out Boston's previous game with a shoulder injury. “Three points are pretty much a dagger, so I just tried to get my feet set and get my elbow pointed to the rim. It was a little deep out, but a very makeable shot." 

Despite the tension-filled scenario, nobody could be stunned Irving delivered.

“He’s always had a knack for that,” Brooks said of the player that sank the series-winning shot for the Cavaliers in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals.

Leadership wasn’t always a breeze for Irving, the No. 1 overall pick the year after Washington selected Wall first in 2010. He bolted Cleveland in the summer of 2017 after three seasons of highs and frustrations with LeBron James. Wall held the face-of-the-franchise status with the Wizards. Irving would get his turn with the storied Celtics.

The scoring and playmaking comes naturally. Playing the role of team tone-setter takes work. The evolution isn’t complete.

"It’s an everyday job. It’s part of kind of the next step of evolution for me in my career, of just learning what that means for me and what type of leader I want to be,” Irving said at Boston’s morning shootaround on the campus of Georgetown University.

“He’s always been good about [leadership],” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said or Irving. "When he first came in, I thought he did a great job of just kinda fitting in and making sure that everybody, 1 through 15, knows that he’s invested in them. And that’s all you can do from a leadership standpoint. It starts with being authentic, it starts with investing in people. Then you have a chance to go from there and he’s done all that stuff.”

Irving sought guidance, but wouldn’t reveal identities.

 "I will never tell you guys. Never tell you guys,” he said. "I like having a mystical wisdom feel, older board of people I like to go to.”

He did disclose their teachings.

"Patience. Patience. Patience,” Irving said. "Even for myself, I think at this point in my career it’s not necessarily about my skills or my talent, it’s more about how do I echo greatness to our group every single day and figure out what that looks like for us. That’s been the biggest challenge for me.”

Stars are often thrust into leadership roles regardless of their acumen for the gig.

"You see it all the time,” Irving said. “I think it’s a little unfair to have that responsibility but the ones that are meant for it are willing to accept it and figure out how they learn best leading a group and just being the best player,” said Irving. "It’s easy to go out and score 27 points, go get it and nothing else really matters and you’re just caring about yourself. 

"When you have to care about a whole entire group, really depend on just learning who you’re playing with every single day, who is coaching you, that relationship, that’s far more important to me now that it is just being able to be the young guy fourth year in the league trying to get a bunch of points and assists and be in the top standings. As long as we’re winning and we’re up in the top of the teams and my teammates are feeling good, I’m happy.”

Even with work remaining, Irving’s growth stood out to one of his biggest rivals.

“Kyrie has always been a great scorer, a great player,” said Wall, who had 34 points and 13 assists. “A lot of people didn’t know if he had leadership ability to lead by himself. He’s doing a heck of a job with other great players over there and a great coach.”

The Wizards did a credible job against Irving and the Celtics. Just not enough to avoid the other team’s point guard from carrying the day.


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John Wall overcomes injury scare for solid return, albeit in a loss to the Celtics

John Wall overcomes injury scare for solid return, albeit in a loss to the Celtics

With two minutes remaining in overtime, and in the midst of a late-game scoring barrage, John Wall drove to his right and gained a step on Kyrie Irving. He finished off the glass with his left hand as Irving jumped and twisted midair under the rim.

The two landed at nearly the exact same time, on the baseline and not far from the Wizards' bench. Irving, though, was a split-second later and came down right on Wall's right ankle.

As play continued on the other end of the floor, Wall remained on the ground, writhing in pain. He slapped the hardwood and yelled as trainers rushed to his aid. 

Though he was able to return soon after, the fall was a serious injury scare in what has been a tumultuous week for Wall. He missed their last game due to bone spurs in his left heel and was listed as questionable before tip-off against the Celtics. That is all on top of the fact he was sick and also dealing with off-court matters that made him miss a game last week.

The Wizards lost to Boston, but Wall managed to return with one of his best games of the season. He had 34 points, 13 assists, six rebounds, two steals and a block. He shot 53.8 percent from the field and had 12 points in the fourth quarter to help force overtime after the Wizards were outscored by 16 in the third.

After his ankle injury, Wall was replaced by Tomas Satoransky. Only 45 seconds of gametime later, he returned.

"If it ain't broke, play," Wall said.

Teammate Bradley Beal had a similar view of the situation.

"I was just hoping he was okay. He said he couldn't go," Beal said. "But he ended up checking right back in. He's a warrior. If it ain't broke, he's playing."

The ankle injury may need to be monitored in the coming days, but Wall appears to be somewhat out of the woods with his heel. It's an injury he has battled on and off for nearly four years. This week, it just happened to get to a point where it was as painful as its ever been. 

A few days of treatment and one game off seemed to do the trick. Wall believes it isn't much of a concern anymore.

"The heel is great," he said. "Between today and the Cleveland game, it was night and day. I was moving. It felt a lot better so give a lot of credit to the training staff.”

Wall scored 19 points from the start of the fourth quarter on. He went 9-for-13 to finish the game and all of his makes were right at the rim.

If anything positive can be taken from a tough loss to the Celtics, it's that Wall got back to what he does best. Whatever burst he was lacking against the Cavaliers on Saturday, arguably the worst game of his career, seemed to have returned in this one. Whether it was Irving, Marcus Smart or Jayson Tatum, no Celtics player had luck stopping Wall off the dribble.

Wall is clearly nicked up and playing through pain, now with injuries to both of his legs. But if Wednesday's game was any indication, he still has enough to be effective. Whether that's enough to start leading the Wizards to wins remains to be seen.