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ASU Men’s Basketball: Midway through conference play, worn Sun Devils fight on

(Photo: Nicole Hernandez/WCSN) 

The 2016-17 season, which was intended to be a step forward for second-year head coach Bobby Hurley and his squad, is becoming a frustrating episode of stagnation midway through the conference schedule.

The Devils are 10-12 this season with  a 3-6 record in the Pac-12. They have lost five of six and are 7-4 at Wells Fargo Arena. To exceed the 15-17 record the team posted last season, ASU would have to go 5-4 with several difficult opponents still ahead.

The misfortunes have not been entirely of ASU’s making. Sam Cunliffe left the program midseason, and forward Andre Adams is still dealing with recurring knee issues, leaving the Devils with only eight scholarship players available. That being said, Hurley thinks it’s on him and the team’s leaders to overcome the bad breaks.

“I have to take responsibility when my team doesn’t play well and needs to play better,” Hurley said after Sunday’s 91-83 loss to Washington State. “The leadership starts here. From there, our five players that start the game, those are the leaders. They need to take ownership and responsibility for what goes on out there.”

ASU’s starting group this season has been Tra Holder, Shannon Evans II, Kodi Justice, Torian Graham and Obinna Oleka. Of those five, Justice is the only one who plays under 32 minutes per game.  The Devils are forced to rely heavily on these players, who hold that it is their job to get wins despite the heavy workload.

“I mean, we’re young,” Justice said earlier in the season.“That’s what we’re here to do. We’re here to play basketball, so if someone is playing 30 or 35 minutes, we’re gonna get in the cold tub and get ready for Thursday. That’s what it is, we’re just happy to be here and keep playing.”

Holder expressed similar sentiments at Tuesday’s practice, saying “if you really want to win, you’ll sacrifice your body and those things don’t show up in the box score.”

Hurley recognizes the load the core of the team must carry, and has made adjustments. He mentioned that, while he’d like to increase the intensity of practices, he wants his players conditioned and healthy for games.

The large minutes imbalance certainly has on-the-court consequences, particularly defensively, as ASU gives up the most points of any team in the Pac-12. In part, this is due to the difficulty of defending in transition. ASU has given up 18.8 fastbreak points per game over its last five outings.

“I thought communication was some of the problem,” Hurley said of the loss to Wazzu, which outscored ASU 22-6 on the break. “Just not addressing who has the ball, whose got the guy they’re supposed to cover in transition. We talked about making that a point of emphasis.”

The Sun Devils are also a team without much size in their core unit, which, coupled with the heavy workload, makes defense an extreme chore. Justice and Graham especially must guard guys with a few inches and several pounds over them on a nightly basis. Big players like Arizona’s Lauri Markkanen and Washington State’s Josh Hawkinson have picked the Sun Devils apart on the block.

Hurley could combat this by playing the pair of bench bigs, Jethro Tshisumpa and Ramon Vila, in longer spurts. Problem is, ASU relies heavily on high-volume scoring, an area where neither is very polished. Tshisumpa only played two minutes against Wazzu, and Hurley said it was because his team started slow on offense and couldn’t sacrifice their scoring to play him more.

Slow offensive starts have been another major killer for the Sun Devils this season. In its last five games, Arizona State has started out 1 of 6, 2 of 7, 3 of 9, 0 of 6 and 1 of 6 from the floor.

“We have to come out with better energy, especially at home,” Hurley said Tuesday, “I thought we were a little flat. We were reluctant to be aggressive. We’ve got to warm up better, we’ve got to talk to each other about starting faster.”

What’s kept ASU afloat this season is the talent of its scorers. Graham, Holder and Evans rank second, third, and 12th in the Pac-12 in points per game. While the Devils do settle for shots that aren’t visually or analytically of high quality, they can make them.

That being the case, the Devils shot selection can turn on them. When the tough shots don’t fall, ASU can run out of options quickly. Hurley concentrates on when to take that the kind of contested shot with his team.

“Those are great when you’ve made a couple,” he said. “Then you feel great. Not so much a good idea if you haven’t.”

The Sun Devils season still has purpose. They could still make the NIT, and in the Pac-12 tournament, the past doesn’t count for much. On both sides of the ball, ASU does have work to do, and the short-handed team will need all the energy it can muster in the final nine games.

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