Arizona State's NCAA tournament dreams are still alive.
The Pac-12's Sun Devils defeated the Big East's St. John's Red Storm 74-65 in Wednesday's First Four clash of No. 11 seeds in the West Region of the 2019 NCAA men's basketball tournament. Thanks to its victory in Dayton, Ohio, Arizona State will face the sixth-seeded Buffalo Bulls on Friday.
Luguentz Dort was brilliant for the Sun Devils with 21 points, four rebounds, two assists and two steals, overcoming a scary moment when he fell hard while going for a loose ball. Zylan Cheatham added 14 points and 10 boards in support.
Shamorie Ponds (25 points, four assists and three steals) and LJ Figueroa (19 points and 10 boards) led the way in defeat for the Red Storm.
Shamorie Ponds Provides ASU's Backcourt with Ideal Test for Buffalo
Arizona State knew it would have its hands full defensively with Ponds entering the game.
After all, he is a high-usage offensive playmaker who thrives in transition, dribbles past defenders in half-court sets, hits from three-point range and facilitates when doubled. He averaged 19.5 points and 5.2 assists per game after pouring in 21.6 points a night last season.
Ponds was named All-Big East First Team and flashed his talent while carrying the Red Storm offense for extended stretches in Wednesday's game.
While he was a daunting matchup, he also provided the Sun Devils with ideal experience heading into the Buffalo matchup. The Bulls are loaded with difference-makers in the backcourt, including leading scorer CJ Massinburg (18.3 points, 6.6 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game behind 39.6 percent shooting from deep) and Jeremy Harris (14.0 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game).
It isn't just a two-man show, though, as Jayvon Graves, Dontay Caruthers and Davonta Jordan provide impressive depth.
Graves (37.9 percent) and Caruthers (39.5 percent) in particular can light it up from deep if given too much space and will take advantage when Arizona State focuses too much attention on Massinburg.
North Carolina is the only team in the tournament that plays with a faster pace than Buffalo, according to KenPom.com's tempo rankings. The Bulls consistently push the pace with so many guards who can handle the ball and won't hesitate to look for opportunities to get out in transition against Arizona State.
The fast breaks either set up looks at the rim or open up three-pointers when the defense runs straight to the lane to prevent layups.
The tempo and plethora of guards served as primary reasons Buffalo tied for fifth in the country in points per game during the regular season at 84.9. That figures to be an issue for a Sun Devils defense that is 78th in KenPom's rankings and didn't consistently face this type of explosiveness in a weak Pac-12 this season.
While the Pac-12 is normally a power conference that would have adequately prepared Bobby Hurley's team for the NCAA tournament, it put only three teams in the field. Oregon was only included because it won the conference tournament; otherwise, it would have been two.
That is why the clash with Ponds was so important. The combination of Dort, Rob Edwards and Remy Martin garnered experience against one of the Big East's best players in the pressure-packed environment of the Big Dance and passed the test.
Their work on backcourt mate Mustapha Heron—who averaged 14.9 points per game this season—was also critical in the win. He finished with a mere six points on 1-of-12 shooting, which should give the Arizona State backcourt confidence moving into the round of 64.
The Sun Devils will likely need that confidence if they are going to upset the Bulls.
Arizona State will face Buffalo on Friday in the round of 64 in Tulsa, Oklahoma.