(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
If this Arizona State men’s basketball team’s season could be made into and ESPN “30 for 30” film, it already has a solid tease.
What if I told you the 2014-2015 ASU basketball team, which went 8-5 in a weak pre-conference schedule as well as dropped its first four Pac-12 games, still had a chance to make the NCAA tournament?
At this point in the year, under the given circumstances, it may be a longshot, but as the great Lloyd Christmas once said: “So, you’re telling me there’s a chance?”
Yes, ASU does have an outside shot to make the Big Dance. Its current RPI ranking is 86, and the next closest Pac-12 team, Stanford, is at 54.
However, running the table would include knocking off No. 13 Utah on the road as well as Stanford in Wells Fargo Arena.
The Sun Devils would also likely need to win at least two games in the Pac-12 tournament, and only then would they be really in the discussion to make the NCAA tournament.
Regardless of the outcome of this season, the way this team has progressed over the up-and-down conference season is as impressive as any team in the country. After starting 0-4 in conference play, they have won seven of the last 10 games and are back to .500 in an uneven Pac-12.
There are obvious reasons for ASU’s recent success, such as the emergence of freshman guard Tra Holder and sophomore forward Savon Goodman.
Holder, who averaged only 1.5 points per game in the first four conference games, has since averaged 10.9 per contest. Goodman is no different, contributing 11.3 points per game after averaging just 5.3 in ASU’s losing streak to start the Pac-12 season.
That’s not to forget that there are factors that don’t necessarily show up in the stat book like late-game management.
In four of the five nonconference losses, the Sun Devils lost by five points or less and displayed issues in closing out games. For instance, in the Texas A&M loss, ASU put an Aggie player on the free-throw line with five seconds left in the game and a score even at 71.
The Alabama loss also comes to mind, where ASU’s defense allowed senior forward Levi Randolph to score 14 of his 28 points in the last five minutes of the game and coupled that with a questionable three pointer by senior forward Jonathan Gilling with 35 seconds remaining despite only being down by two.
Although the shot selection at the ends of those games may have been an issue, the free-throw shooting is what is really important in close games. In only one of those three losses did ASU shoot over 65 percent from the line, which was the one point loss to Texas A&M.
In the three-point win at home over Arizona, the Sun Devils shot 78.6 percent from the line, making 22 shots on 28 attempts. The Wildcats, on the other hand, shot half as many free throws in the game.
Where the game management has really made a difference late in games is in the most recent of contests – at home versus USC.
This game was something that may have been expected from the ASU team that sputtered to start Pac-12 play rather than now. Previously, ASU featured struggling offense with a defense that reflected offensive issues. It found themselves somehow in the game despite shooting 32.8 percent for the game with an atrocious 23.1 percent from three.
Why this game was any different is largely due to two reasons: shot selection and free-throw shooting.
ASU got to the line at will, taking 26 attempts from the charity stripe, while USC only took five free throws all game long. In a close game like that one, each attempt at the line can decide the outcome, and the Sun Devils had that opportunity 21 more times than the Trojans.
Never mind the attempts, ASU also made 20 of its 26 shots, an outstanding and uncharacteristic rate of 76.9 percent, a full 10 percent better than its season average of 66.8 percent.
These free throws would not have mattered though had the Sun Devils not executed on offense at the end of the game and found the best possible shot. On a night where there was a lid on the rim from three-point range, Holder and Gilling each hit big threes in the final minutes to set them up for victory and make the free throws when it matters.
If the way ASU has been playing as of late says anything about how they will finish the season, Sun Devil fans could be in for a finish equally as interesting and exhilarating, and potentially, more basketball beyond the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas. Whether the Sun Devils end up in the NIT or the NCAA Tournament is left to be seen, but there’s a chance for either outcome, and given where ASU was after the start of the Pac-12 season, that’s quite the accomplishment.