(Photo: Brady Klain/WCSN)
Conference play hasn’t been kind to No. 11 ASU men’s basketball.
The Sun Devils (13-3, 1-3 Pac-12) are at the lowest point of what has been a captivating and remarkable season, struggling though the early stages of their conference gauntlet. ASU dropped a home game to Oregon on Thursday, 76-72, in front of 13,693 raucous fans that included NBA star James Harden.
It was a constant struggle for the Sun Devils to defend the interior against an athletic, young Duck team. ASU lost the paint battle 38-16 and got out-rebounded 38-31. Oregon’s patience with the ball and ability to offensive rebound prevented the Sun Devils from playing their usual brand of basketball.
“They grinded us up on defense,” Kodi Justice said. “That was hard for us to keep trying to compete on the defensive end, then we’d go down and rush up a shot and miss an open look because we just played 45 seconds on defense.”
ASU’s offensive production has taken a significant dip in the last four games, especially when teams slow the pace and force the Sun Devils to work for their baskets. ASU is averaging just under 78 points per game in the Pac-12 after putting up nearly 92 per game out of conference.
Free throws — one of the hallmarks of a great shooting team— were the bugaboo for the Sun Devils on Thursday. ASU missed nine of its 31 opportunities at the charity stripe.
“If you’re not playing at your best offensively, you’ve got to make free throws down the stretch to keep it close,” ASU coach Bobby Hurley said. “You can’t give up the offensive rebounds we gave up.”
Oregon’s zone defense proved effective in slowing and stymying ASU’s offense. Despite foul trouble, Dana Altman was able to concoct the right lineups at the right time to keep the Sun Devils from establishing any kind of rhythm.
It also didn’t help that ASU was committing turnovers, forcing bad looks and not moving the ball with the kind of rapid pace that makes its offense so dangerous. Hurley took a lot of the blame for his team’s struggles, saying he needed to design a better system for his personnel, but that same personnel was playing near-perfect basketball in mid-December.
Now this group is in uncharted territory. They’ve lost three of four and had their flaws lain bare for the rest of the conference to see. A perfect season became abruptly imperfect, reaching a point of crucial reflection just two weeks in.
“We’re not in a great rhythm, and we haven’t been,” Hurley said. “We’ve been just grinding it out trying to find it. It’s possible that it’s just part of the season, too.”
Hurley and his team don’t have much time to reflect with Oregon State coming into Tempe on Saturday. That game provides the Sun Devils an opportunity to cast aside the doubt that looms over an inauspicious start to conference play.
In the coming weeks, ASU has the opportunity to right the ship and prove its mettle in the Pac-12. The Sun Devils don’t want this feeling to linger.