(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
Anybody in Wells Fargo Arena could see the overflow of confidence in the Arizona State Sun Devils in their 67-54 win over No. 18 Texas A&M.
It was visible when sophomore guard Kodi Justice hit his third three-pointer of the first half, which Justice celebrated by strutting to halfcourt with his right hand still holding his follow-through.
It was visible when senior forward Willie Atwood sank one three threes of the night and threw up the “three-point goggles” that almost seems like a requirement following a successful shot from deep.
And it is glaringly visible in ASU’s results. With their win over TAMU, the Sun Devils now hold wins over four top-100 KenPom teams this season. That puts them in a group that includes North Carolina, Michigan State and Xavier, among a handful of others.
With each game the Sun Devils play, the more comfortable the team looks with not only each other, but also with head coach Bobby Hurley. As the season has progressed, the season-opening loss to Sacramento State seems more and more like an outlier than the norm.
“If you’ve looked at how we’ve played this year, we’ve almost stepped up and played better in these type of games than some of our other opponents,” Hurley said. “Sometimes it’s human nature to maybe not get more excited to play a certain team, so I think we have an older team. They want to taste what it’s like to play meaningful games.”
While playing high-caliber opponents is certainly a motivation to play well, having the ability to compete against teams of that quality is equally if not more critical. If the Sun Devils were getting blown out early against good teams, then fans wouldn’t see the swagger on the court that was so prevalent in ASU’s win over TAMU.
Hurley has instilled a structure which has given his players the freedom to simply play basketball, something that doesn’t seem like an ingenious breakthrough but has been vital to ASU’s quick start this season.
“Maybe last year, if you would’ve missed a shot here and there, you were looking over your shoulder worrying if you were coming out,” Justice said. “Now, we’re just playing, going on to the next play because we know it’s eight, nine guys playing. We’re all going to play, so don’t worry about it if you’re going to miss a shot here or there, just have the confidence to shoot the next one.”
Justice is coming off one of his better games of the season with 10 points on 3-of-6 shooting from beyond the arc, his second game with three made threes. His season-high 13 points came in ASU’s win over Belmont, and as he is working back from a foot injury that ended his freshman campaign prematurely, his contributions have continued to grow.
Also continuing to grow is the impact Atwood is having on a game-to-game basis. After a junior season in which Atwood nearly averaged as many fouls per game (1.6) as attempted shots (2.4), the former JUCO All-American is finally producing the way some thought upon his arrival.
Call it whatever you wish: utilized incorrectly, without a position or just lost on the floor, Atwood struggled last season. He looked hesitant, and the numbers showed that to be true. In 31 games, he attempted 73 shots.
Through eight games this season, Atwood has already taken 47 shots. Not only is he pulling the trigger more frequently, he’s making them as well. He is shooting 51.1 percent from the field and a team-high 41.2 percent from three, and it is clear that his relationship with Hurley has contributed to this jump in production.
“He (Hurley) told us once he came,” Atwood said. “He really don’t have no restrictions on offense as long as we don’t go out playing like we’re at a park or something. He just wants things to stay tight. He wants us to be comfortable out there because you got to have players to make plays, and that’s how he wants us to play – without looking over our shoulder every time we mess up.”
Although the senior center Eric Jacobsen is the only active player on ASU’s roster above 6-foot-7, the Sun Devils are outrebounding their opponents by an average of eight boards per game, and Atwood’s versatility has played a crucial role in Hurley’s ability to play bigger lineups with him, Jacobsen and junior forward Savon Goodman on the floor at the same time.
Whereas his ‘tweener play-style failed to produce much of anything a season ago, he has been a key cog in ASU surviving against bigger teams.
“Willie has embraced it (the lineup),” Hurley said. “Willie is thriving in it because of his ability to go inside and rebound and score in the paint, and then he can also shoot, and then it gives us more size in the lane on defense. It’s just given us an edge in games where we’re not shooting well. Those guys all go to the glass real hard, so it’s working out well.”
And those claims are proven when looking at the numbers.
As it stands, Atwood leads all qualifying players (played at least 50 minutes this season) in win shares per 40 minutes (.190), true shooting percentage (62.7 percent) and is second and third on the team in effective field goal percentage (58.5 percent) and two-point field goal percentage (56.7 percent) respectively, according to sports-reference.com.
Looking at those same numbers last season, it continues to speak to the night-and-day type of breakout Atwood is having this season. Atwood’s offensive rating, which accounts for the amount of points produced per 100 possessions, stands at 127.6, which leads the Sun Devils and is 27 points higher than the 2014-15 season.
And beyond the numbers, Atwood is flat out more comfortable and confident eight games into his senior season. Rather than hiding in the corner on offense and taking space on the court, he is banging below the basket and hitting timely jump shots. Between Atwood and Justice, a packed out student section in Wells Fargo Arena had plenty to cheer about.
“If we keep winning, we keep bringing a crowd out like that, and that just helps us feed off of it,” Justice said. “The crowd is like the sixth man out here for us, so the louder they can be, we build off of it. If we can do something on the court to get them going, that’s what we do.
“That’s one reason why you’ll see me pose here, scream, throw my hands up – just to get the crowd going because if you can get them on your side, it’s hard to run an offense because when we were at Creighton, it was so loud. We might’ve had a little mistakes here and there because we couldn’t hear because there was so much going on. If we can get something like that here, that would be great to build on.”
Looking at the team in a complex framing, ASU is better than a season ago both as a unit and between its individuals, but simply put, it’s a fresh start for all involved.
“(It’s a) new era,” Atwood said. “I think the gym should be packed every game. I like playing here. I love this. It was loud today. I want the whole (city of) Tempe to come. The whole Mesa, whatever else it is around here. Pack out the gym.”
You can reach Zac Pacleb on Twitter @ZacPacleb or via email at email@example.com