(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
As the calendar year switched over from 2015 to 2016, the Arizona State Sun Devils were sitting pretty at 10-3 after a rigorous nonconference schedule. They had just come off of wins over a tough UNLV team and a Texas A&M squad that was ranked in the top-25 at the time and has since climbed to the top of the SEC.
Since the beginning of 2016, ASU has struggled mightily, going 1-6 in conference play and losing multiple close games in a row. In each of their seven conference games, the Sun Devils have been within six points in the final five minutes or leading before losing the game at the end.
The last two games in particular against Cal and Stanford have been extremely tough on ASU as it was tied in both with less than three minutes to play only to not execute down the stretch. ASU head coach Bobby Hurley is keeping a positive outlook on what is shaping up to be a season of missed opportunities.
“We’ve got to look at this one game at a time at this point,” Hurley said. “We’ve got to try to win each game. We’ve pretty much put ourselves squarely in just about every game and given ourselves a chance to win. We can’t lose sight of that and try and make sure that continues to happen.”
The Sun Devils are currently sitting in 11th in the conference and really need a couple of wins in their next few games to stay competitive in the conference and get a good seed in the Pac-12 tournament.
ASU working on quicker starts
Part of the reason the Sun Devils have lost so many close games this year is because of their propensity to get down big early in games. On three separate occasions in conference play; ASU has battled back from double-digit deficits to bring the game to a single possession only to lose it in the end.
Hurley stressed that the team needed to get out to better starts to put themselves in position to win these games before the final minutes. He made sure that the team began the first 20 minutes of practice at a quick pace to simulate game action.
“Just like Hurley is saying, sometimes we’ll have a practice where we start slowly so we’ve been trying to have a quicker practice.” sophomore guard Kodi Justice said. “It feels like every game we’ve played we’ve always started slow and it’s tough to say why, but that is what’s hurting us.”
Sun Devils maintaining confidence
The Sun Devils know they are better than their record indicates and that their close games are a sign of a team that can compete with anyone.
“We’ve been in every game,” senior forward Willie Atwood said. “Knowing that it is hard to blow us out, people give us more respect than what our record shows so we’ve just got to come out and get some good wins.”
The general consensus by the team is that they could get hot at any moment and a breakthrough is on the horizon. ASU knows it is close and are remaining confident despite the lackluster start to conference.
“It has given us a lot of confidence just knowing that we can compete with anyone,” Justice said. “We’re not worried. Cal was in the top 15, Arizona too. We’ve competed with everyone so if we can just close the games, that’s what it’s going to come down too.”
Preparation for Oregon State’s Gary Payton II
ASU will be facing one of the better players it’ll see this season in Oregon State guard Gary Payton II. Payton II is an excellent all-around player, leading the Beavers in points, rebounds, and assists. He was also named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year last season.
Payton II might be the most complete player ASU will play this year. Defending him will not be an easy task.
“He’s talented, and he fills the stat sheet,” Hurley said. “He does a lot of things that help them win games. The leadership, the tempo he plays at, his physicality at that position, the athleticism, even his rebounding. It will be a challenge for us to keep him off the glass and transition. He’s just a complete guard.”
It will be a team effort trying to defend Payton II and Atwood is up to the challenge of helping guard him, no matter how tough it may be.
“He’s explosive and he’s a great guard but I’ll have my chances at him,” Atwood said.