(Photo: Blake Benard/WCSN)
What a difference a month can make.
A month ago, a case could be held that Arizona State was exceeding expectations. The Sun Devils sat at 10-4 and boasted road wins over UNLV and Creighton and held serve against then-No. 18 Texas A&M. It seemed as if ASU was going to perform slightly better than its media-predicted 8th place ranking in the conference.
About four weeks later and nine games later, ASU is struggling. The Sun Devils are 2-7 in Pac-12 play, and yet, in all seven losses, the Sun Devils have been within striking distance late into the second half.
“It’s hard to really say that it’s been a failure,” ASU head coach Bobby Hurley said. “But the record is clearly not what we had hoped, and we’re below what our expectations were. That being said, we have been very competitive in most games. The games you are in a close one inside two minutes, you got to grab them if you can grab them in this league this year because it’s not easy out here with the quality of teams in the conference.”
ASU has been in every single game during conference play – well, maybe excluding its most recent loss to No. 23 Oregon. Even then, the Sun Devils were within seven points with 5:31 remaining.
But it wasn’t enough. Despite a fantastic crossover from senior guard Gerry Blakes, he couldn’t convert the wide-open, long-range opportunity that move offered. The series events that followed included a foul, a technical on Hurley, and a large-enough momentum swing in Oregon’s favor that was too massive for ASU to combat.
Once again, ASU had an opportunity to come out victorious, and once again, the final push was not there.
“You look back and reflect on the Cal game, the UCLA game, the USC game and the Stanford game – games where we had real chances to win inside two minutes and we didn’t get it done,” Hurley said. “That’s part of the reason we’re looking at the record we have right now.”
What might be the most confusing factor in ASU’s losses is the lack of a consistent blemish of which blame can be placed. The Sun Devils aren’t outstandingly poor in any particular area, but instead, they come up short in one or two different areas in each loss.
“Coach was just preaching about how there’s always something new,” Blakes said. “(Against Oregon), we turned the ball over a lot, and they scored 29 points off our turnovers. Last game, it (turning the ball over) wasn’t a problem. This game, it was, so I’m not really sure why we have inconsistencies in certain areas, but I think we’re trying to fix it for the second half of the season.”
The problem: The second half of Pac-12 starts on Wednesday, and the reality is that ASU is the second-worst team in the Pac-12 according to the conference standings. When certain trends seem to be creeping out, new ones arise and alter the complexion of the team.
Early in Pac-12 play, the team’s offensive production was dominated by sophomore guards Tra Holder and Kodi Justice. Shooting nearly 50 percent each from beyond the arc, the duo buoyed what was at times an anemic offense. Holder particularly stood out, tallying at least 20 points in four consecutive games and setting a new career-high twice.
Of late, junior forward Obinna Oleka has made his mark, averaging 17 points and 4.5 rebounds in both of ASU’s most recent matchups. Blakes also seemed to find his offensive groove this weekend, sinking 5-of-9 from three-point land against the Oregon schools after making only four three pointers through seven Pac-12 contests coming into the weekend.
All that being said, Hurley and Blakes noted a discouraging trend in ASU’s loss to Oregon.
“I just felt like as a team, we kind of didn’t stay together – I would say – in some areas or in some spurts in the second half,” Blakes said.
“We became individuals out there and didn’t do what we were successful doing against Oregon State, which was more driving and kicking to each other and sharing the ball,” Hurley said. “We were coming down soloing it and shooting a shot sometimes without making a pass, and they were contested shots. We weren’t making Oregon work on defense, and then they were going back against us again, so that was the issue with our offense for about a four or five minute period.”
On the bright side, this was more or less the first occurrence of individualism and playing outside the structure of the offense. Given ASU’s track record of balance and sharing the basketball, one could theorize this issue will not become a trending problem. The players have reiterated the amount confidence they have in each other and from the coaching staff, and that won’t change any time soon.
As for feelings within the team and where they sit midway through the conference schedule, that hasn’t changed either. Blakes ended Sunday’s presser with a simple answer as to why he felt confident about his team’s status.
“We’ve shown that we’re a good team. That’s why,” Blakes said.
You can reach Zac Pacleb on Twitter @ZacPacleb or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org