Red Storm and Sun Devils meet for the second time in three years for the chance to face Buffalo on Friday
For the second straight season, Arizona State earned one of the last four at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament and will face fellow No. 11 seed St. John's on Wednesday night in Dayton. Will the Sun Devils fare better in their return trip to the First Four? Or will the Red Storm break through with their first NCAA Tournament victory since 2000?
Both teams held a precarious spot on the bubble after piling up multiple bad losses outside the top quadrant. Arizona State seems to be back on track after winning six of its last eight games. St. John's stumbled badly down the stretch. The Red Storm have lost five of their last seven games heading into the NCAA Tournament.
These two teams have played twice previously in the regular season and split those games. The Red Storm earned a 67-58 victory in 2010 while the Sun Devils prevailed 82-70 in '17.
First Four: No. 11 St. John's Red Storm (21-12) vs. No. 11 Arizona State Sun Devils (22-10)
Time: Approximately 9:10 p.m. ET (Wednesday)
Where: University of Dayton Arena (Dayton, Ohio)
Keys for St. John's
Applying extra defensive pressure could work in the Red Storm's favor. Arizona State averages 13.6 turnovers per game, which ranks ninth among Pac-12 teams. This plays right into the St, John's wheelhouse. St. John's leads the Big East with 8.8 steals per game. The Red Storm are equally good at taking care of the ball with a league-best plus-5.06 turnover margin. Shamorie Ponds sets the tone for the active defense. Ponds led the Big East with 84 total steals and 2.6 steals per game during the regular season.
Ponds is the engine that makes the offense go, but the real key for success will lie in what Mustapha Herron does on that end of the court. St. John's has won 15 of the 18 games where Herron has scored 12 or more points this season. The Red Storm have lost just one game this season where he has shot at least 50 percent from the field.
Keys for Arizona State
Establishing dominance on the glass early will be key for the Sun Devils. Arizona State emerged one of the better rebounding teams in the Pac-12 this season. The Sun Devils led the Pac-12 in offensive rebounds (12.2 rpg) and ranked second in total rebounds (40.0) during the regular season. Zylan Cheatham sets the pace as the Pac-12's top rebounder, collecting 10.4 rebounds per game. St. John's is a team that can be bullied inside. The Red Storm ranked a distant last among Big East teams in rebounding margin (-6.1) during the regular season.
Arizona State has a balanced attack on offense. It's no secret though that the Sun Devils are most dangerous when Luguentz Dort is firing on all cylinders. Dort, a freshman guard from Canada, averages a team-high 16.1 points per game. The Sun Devils have won 14 of 17 games this season where Dort shoots 40 percent or better from the floor.
St. John's struggled to claw out a tight victory against California, the last-place Pac-12 team, earlier this season. The Red Storm could be in for a tough 40 minutes facing a much better squad from that league. Arizona State has enough size and athleticism in the frontcourt to give St. John's problems around the basket on both ends of the court. If the Sun Devils can take care of the ball, their second trip to the First Four will feature a much happier outcome and set them up for a Friday date with No. 6-seed Buffalo in Tulsa.
Prediction: Arizona State 77, St. John's 73
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.