(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
The first season of the Bobby Hurley-era in Tempe has concluded, and not even the players are afraid of calling it a roller coaster of a year, which is exactly what it was.
Hurley made the move from Buffalo to Arizona State, and it was one of the bigger coaching announcements in the country over last offseason. With so much promise coming in after a fifth-place finish in the Pac-12 with a similar core of players, it was expected to be a notable year for Sun Devil hoops. After a 15-17 season, it was anything but.
Not everything can be blamed on Hurley with players mostly recruited under Herb Sendek as well as injuries, suspensions and departures all playing a role.
But regardless, Hurley wanted to make a lot of changes at the beginning of his inaugural season, and some of the proposals had mixed results.
A first-year coach has quite the task putting his stamp on the program, and though shifts in philosophy can be expected over the course of the season, we decided to compare some of Hurley’s early-season quotes with the actual play on the court over the 2015-16 campaign.
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“I trust all nine guys really to have a good role in our team this year.”
For the most part, this was a true statement. Of the nine available/healthy scholarship players on the roster this season, eight of them played a major role in the rotation. The one left out was sophomore guard Maurice O’Field.
In terms of a “good role,” it depends on the definition. Whether Hurley is speaking about the production efficiency or the minutes played, a “good role” can mean various things. For the sake of breaking this down, a combination of production as well as minutes will serve as the criteria.
Junior guard Andre Spight as well as O’Field were the only two of the nine who played less than 20 minutes per game. O’Field never played a significant role in any game throughout the season, but Spight started to come on before leaving the program with four games left in the regular season.
He tallied double-digit points in three of his last four appearances, but before that, he only scored more than 10 points five times. Advertised at the team’s spark-plug shooter at the beginning of the season, Spight never came to have a real important role with the team.
That leaves seven players playing more than 20 minutes a game, all contributing to more than 240 points each this season. Balance was a big theme in the beginning of the season, but one could think that Hurley abandoned the wide distribution of minutes once he solidified his best seven players.
In reality, with O’Field’s suspension O’Field and Spight’s departure, there were times where Hurley was left with no choice other than to play these seven guys.
The lack of depth was by no means Hurley’s fault, but the diminished nine-man rotation idea had many factors play into it, one of those being the fact that two of them were just not capable of executing the way Hurley wanted.
“We’re talking about playing more of a quicker tempo which is going to get more possessions of offense for the guys.”
There are certain things you see on a stat sheet for teams that like to push the tempo, one of those obviously being possessions per game – the main unit of measure for pace. Other components are fast break points and points per game, and ASU dominated none of these categories.
Its pace was about as average as can be. ASU’s 69.8 possessions per game ranked 142nd in the nation and eighth in the Pac-12 – only ahead of Stanford, Cal, Oregon, and Utah, according to sports-reference.com.
With an average of 73.3 points per game, the Sun Devils scored 1.05 points per possession. To put that into perspective, the two highest-paced teams in the conference (Washington, USC) averaged 1.08 and 1.11 points per possession.
On top of that, only 20 percent of all of ASU’s attempted shots came in transition, according to hoop-math.com. Washington, the fastest team in the conference, took 37.1 percent of its shots in transition.
Again, this is where depth becomes the issue. For the most part, ASU had seven capable guys to run with, so the philosophy of run-and-gun may have dissolved more and more as the season progressed, but trying to implement a speedy system was a failure in Hurley’s first season.
“Obinna Oleka, Andre Spight, and Maurice O’Field are all going to have a significant role in this year’s team.”
Again, Spight and O’Field did not do much for this team. But Oleka became a key contributor later in the season for Hurley and the Sun Devils.
After playing a combined 13 minutes in the first two games of the season, Oleka showed some of his versatility in the third game of the season with a 19-point performance against Kennesaw State. Oleka would reach double-digit scoring three more times in the non-conference season, including a double-double with 10 points and 14 rebounds against a tall Marquette team.
Once conference play began, Oleka’s role increased as his production did. His 17-point game against Arizona would be the first of 14 double-digit scoring outputs for Oleka out of 19 Pac-12 games (including tournament loss to Oregon State). Comparing conference play to non-conference, Oleka had as many double-digit scoring games in conference as he did single-digit scoring games out of conference.
Oleka finished the season with the fourth-highest usage percentage on the team with 21.6 percent, and was the only player on the team to contribute one or more win shares on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor, according to sports-reference.com.
“We have to get the free throw situation figured out with (junior forward Savon Goodman), and we’ll spend a lot of time with him so that happens.”
Yes they did, and yes, they still do.
Goodman took the second-most free throw attempts on the team with 126 despite missing four games. He only made 58 of them, shooting an atrocious 48 percent.
With all of the close games the Sun Devils were in this season, better free throw shooting from their most frequent shooter might have meant winning another game or two. But to really speak to how much Goodman’s free-throw shooting hurt the team, one would have to look at the team’s percentage with and without Goodman.
ASU shot 68.7 percent from the charity stripe this season, which ranks 216th in the nation and eighth in the Pac-12. Taking away Goodman’s 58 makes and 126 attempts, the Sun Devils shot 73.5 percent from the line. Had they shot this well from the line, they would have been the second-best free throw shooting team in the conference and 43rd in the country.
Goodman is going to be a crucial player for ASU next season. He is one of the most experienced and maybe the most productive for his position. For as frequently as he gets to the line, he is going to have to make his free throws next season or else it could end up being another year of close losses for Hurley and company.
“I just think Tra, as a lot of freshman guards go through, is you don’t feel like it’s your team. You’re trying to fit in, and (figure out) how do (they) fit in on this team. He’s got to try and assume control and a leadership role and continue to develop those things. Consistency with his shooting – we’ve noticed that that area of his game is improving.”
Sophomore guard Tra Holder was easily the most pleasant surprise the Sun Devils could ask for this season. After a freshman year in which he was timid on the offensive end while trying to find not only his role but his confidence on offense, he had just as good a case to be the most improved player in the conference as Colorado’s George King, who won the award.
In his freshman season, Holder averaged only seven points per contest, shooting 31.7 percent from the field and 24 percent from three. His early-season struggles contributed to his depleting minutes and eventual competition with fellow sophomore guard Kodi Justice for minutes.
This year, Holder was anything but the same.
He doubled his scoring output averaging 14.2 points per game, making him a top-20 scorer in the conference. Holder also finished the year averaging 3.7 assists per game, putting him in the top-ten in the Pac-12. His 38.7 percent shooting from the floor along with 36.6 percent shooting from three helped him become one of the few players in the conference to play more than 1,000 minutes.
With 25 double-digit scoring games and six games of 20 points or more, he more than doubled his double-digit scoring games from his freshman season in which he failed to have one 20-point game. His lights-out shooting as well as distribution helped him produce 456 points for the team this year, 108 more than the next Sun Devil.
Much of this likely has a lot to do with Hurley’s involvement. Holder made significant steps with his offensive game and confidence learning from someone who dominated the position at the same level as well as Shannon Evans, who was ineligible this season but practiced against Holder every day.
This gives Hurley a lot to work with next season having Holder, one of the guards on the rise in the Pac-12, as well as Evans, who Hurley said is an all-conference guard. While depth, tempo and other little things are to be improved upon next season for Hurley in his second season, one thing he will have is experience and talent at the most crucial position on the floor.