(Photo: Tyler Rittenhouse/WCSN)
Just over two weeks ago, Remy Martin sat at the podium after ASU dropped a home game in overtime to Utah. Despite the fact that his team was 3-5 in Pac-12 play and mired in mediocrity, Martin maintained an uncanny optimism.
“We’re fine. We’re fine,” he said. “A lot of people think this was the end of the world because we lost this game, but we’re fine.”
Images of a cartoon dog in a burning house come immediately to mind, a popular meme that seemed like an apt description of the Sun Devils’ season at the time. But instead of suffering a slow burn, ASU responded, winning four of its next five games.
If anything, that sluggish start to conference play lit a fire under the Sun Devils (19-6, 7-6 Pac-12), who handled UCLA 88-79 at Wells Fargo Arena on Saturday for their third straight win. ASU looked more like its non-conference self against the Bruins than any game since its Pac-12 schedule started.
This was the weekend Bobby Hurley’s team needed. It’s the first time in three seasons that the Sun Devils have swept a weekend series against Pac-12 opponents, and they did it by turning defense into offense.
It’s the eternal theme of games that ASU wins. It starts with defense.
“We were active with deflections,” Hurley said. “Even when they drove in there, we were able to get a hand on a couple of those off the dribble. That led to us getting out in the open floor.”
One of the most active defensive presences was freshman forward Kimani Lawrence, who played his best game as a Sun Devil with eight points, seven rebounds and two steals. De’Quon Lake and Romello White were excellent on the defensive end as well, affecting shots and even snatching them out of the air.
— Sun Devil MBB (@SunDevilHoops) February 11, 2018
With the interior plugged by its lengthy forwards, ASU was able to push the ball up the court and play at its most comfortable pace: fast. As a result, the senior guard trio of Tra Holder, Shannon Evans and Kodi Justice combined for 62 points and 10 assists.
Holder, Evans and Justice held their own on the defensive end as well, getting fingers in the passing lanes and forcing UCLA’s guards out of their comfort zone. That fueled an early offensive flurry from Justice and stretches of brilliance from Evans and Holder, who put up big numbers despite their poor shooting percentages.
There’s a reason ASU calls itself “Guard U.” Its fortunes are dependent on the success of those three seniors and the fireplug freshman off the bench.
“That was our calling card for a lot of the year,” Hurley said. “You need that. As the year progresses and you get to postseason, you want to have guards that are elite, can be playmakers and make great decisions.”
Martin had a reason to be optimistic when things reached a low point. Midseason slumps don’t serve as harbingers of doom; they’re normal, can be worked through and are often necessary to expose areas that need improvement.
It appears the Sun Devils have worked out the kinks and turned a corner during a crucial stretch. Last time ASU was playing like this, it was 12-0 and on the verge of a litmus test against rival Arizona.
The same test looms on Thursday when the Wildcats come to town, and it will help answer one question: Are the Sun Devils just fine, or are they more than that?