He’s timed by a shot clock instead of a stopwatch, but Arizona State sophomore Jahii Carson is the Usain Bolt of college basketball point guards.
In a 100-meter race, Carson said he doubts any player could beat him.
“But on a short court, there probably are a couple guys just as fast,” he said.
Off to a slow start to the season, UNLV (2-1) faces the challenge of tracking down Carson and the Sun Devils (3-0) at 7:05 p.m. today at the Thomas &Mack Center in an important nonconference test for both teams.
Considering the Rebels’ relatively soft schedule, a victory over a quality Pacific-12 Conference team could help their cause tremendously in March. UNLV, 37-5 on its home floor under coach Dave Rice, is a 4-point underdog.
A few years ago, these teams might have played a slow-down game dictated by Arizona State coach Herb Sendek’s zone defense. But times have changed in Tempe, and Sendek has adapted to the 5-foot-10-inch Carson’s high-speed skills.
“If it’s my pace, it’s going to be a fast game,” Carson said.
In the 2011-12 season, while Carson sat out as an academic non-qualifier, the Sun Devils were one of the lowest-scoring teams in Division I at 61 points per game. Last season, with Carson running the point, they averaged 71.8 points.
Through three games, Arizona State has turned it up another notch and averages 91.3 points. Sendek set the tone in the offseason with the numbers 3, 12 and 24 in mind.
He wants the Sun Devils to cross midcourt in three seconds and take a good shot within 12 seconds. To establish that approach, Sendek uses the NBA’s 24-second shot clock in practices.
“We try to play fast without playing bad basketball,” Carson said. “I don’t think coaches care about what the fans want to see. This is just about winning. I think all coaching staffs want to exploit all of their strengths. We’re an athletic team, and Coach is emphasizing running more.”
Carson came close to running the Rebels’ offense for their previous coaching staff. As a high school star in Mesa, Ariz., he was courted by the top programs on the West Coast and made one of his five official visits to UNLV.
“At the time, (Lon) Kruger was there and he was recruiting me pretty heavily,” Carson said. “(Sendek) told me he was going to change and let me play the way I wanted to play. I didn’t want to be limited by a program.”
As a Brigham Young assistant, Rice did not recruit Carson but was aware of his talents.
“We all watched him in high school. Carson is an All-American who’s going to be a (NBA) draft pick this year,” Rice said. “It’s going to take a total team effort to get him slowed down.”
Carson is more than a track athlete playing the point. He’s a scorer, averaging a team-high 18.7 points, and a 54.5 percent (6 of 11) 3-point shooter. As a rumor goes, at age 13 and standing 5-3, he dunked a ball.
Rice is sticking with the same starting lineup he used Friday in the Rebels’ 73-70 victory over Omaha, so freshman point guard Kendall Smith will match up with Carson to begin the game and junior Deville Smith, who made a rapid return from a knee injury, will play as a reserve.
Arizona State’s offense is based on pick-and-roll action that allows Carson space to create on the dribble. UNLV’s task is to contain his penetration, and if he gets to the lane, forwards Khem Birch and Roscoe Smith must defend the rim without getting into foul trouble.
Birch has another matchup to be concerned with in the Sun Devils’ 7-2 center, Jordan Bachynski, who set a Pac-12 record with 120 blocked shots last season.
“You worry about Carson, you worry about Bachynski inside, and they have three other shooters outside,” Rice said. “It’s a very good offensive team.”
Rice said he’s prepared to see a zone defense, although Arizona State has played no possessions of zone this season.
The Rebels’ offensive failures against a zone won’t change the Sun Devils’ style, Carson said, and underdog or not, UNLV has his attention.
“We’re a man-to-man team. We’re not going to zone out. That’s not how we play,” Carson said. “We don’t think about how they have struggled. Any team at any point in time can come out and play their best basketball. We respect them, and we’re not taking them for granted.”
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247