(Photo: Eliav Gabay/WCSN)
With a 7-6 record after non-conference play, the Arizona State Sun Devils now head into the trial by fire that is the Pac-12 conference. Five teams in the conference have at least 1o wins, and USC and UCLA have yet to lose a game.
The Sun Devils have had some shining moments, like their comeback win over San Diego State or their competitive showdown with No. 9 Creighton. There have also been extremely poor moments, such as two blowout losses to Kentucky and Purdue and Sam Cunliffe transferring after only 10 games.
This team has certainly given the school and college basketball community some things to think about. Here are five of them.
1. Effort Translates Into Compete-Level
Arizona State’s 96-85 loss to Creighton, who remains undefeated, was quite the competition. Even though Arizona State head coach Bobby Hurley did spell out that there were no moral victories, he had positive things to say about how his team competed after that game.
“I got a lot of respect for how the team competed,” Hurley said after the game. “They were diving on the floor, scrambling to try and create turnovers and giving us a chance to win the game. As a coach that’s really all you can hope for, that they push themselves and compete that way.”
Hurley had previously expressed disappointment with the way his team performed against Kentucky, who won by 46 and Purdue, who won by 33.
In the Creighton game, ASU was down five at the half and cut a 20-point deficit back down to nine later on. The high-energy, tough approach gave the Devils a slim margin on the glass and 42 points in the paint.
“We’re trying to just not allow what happened earlier in the non-conference resurface, with some of the other games we played,” Hurley said after last week’s win over UCA.
ASU certainly did not seem afraid to play big opponents. The scheduling decisions were Hurley’s, and the team seemed to embrace the challenge.
“Record-wise it may look bad or detrimental for us,” junior guard Tra Holder said of playing a tough schedule. “I think we all got a lot of positives from it. We feel like we can compete with anybody.”
The Creighton game is a good sign for the Sun Devils. At their best, they can give even one of the best teams anywhere a scare, especially in Wells Fargo Arena. With major players like Arizona, USC and UCLA coming around, ASU will need to find that same strength within them.
2. Living And Dying By The Small-Ball
Arizona State began the year starting four players who formally played guard. They started off well, thanks to Herculean efforts from senior forward Obinna Oleka as well as astute rebounding from Cunliffe, who over his brief stint in Tempe was second on the team with 4.8 per game.
The maniacal effort from Oleka has not gone away, as he has eight double-doubles this season and averages over 10 and 10 per game. Hurley has praised Oleka after his big games, saying with the work Oleka does inside scoring and on the boards, he’s “really important to us.”
Behind Oleka in the big-man rotations sits Jethro Tshisumpa and Ramon Vila. Tshisumpa, a former top-100 recruit, is the name a lot of fans are hoping to hear more of. Despite some defensive miscues and fouling issues, Tshisumpa has been coming along bit by bit. So far he averages 1.3 blocks per game and has made three starts.
“From where he was from day one to where he’s at, it’s tremendous,” junior guard Kodi Justice said after the Creighton loss. “The sky’s the limit for him. He’s a defensive player for us. Just wait until he gets an offensive game.”
Cunliffe’s decision to leave the school complicated matters for ASU, who had to start both Torian Graham and Kodi Justice, shrinking the starting unit even more. Graham, one of the surprises this season, has risen to the challenge of everything. He averages 4.4 rebounds per game and leads the team in scoring.
However, losing Cunliffe gave the Sun Devils really four perimeter players Hurley trust, all of whom now start and play far over 30+ minutes per game.
“I mean, we’re young,” Justice said of playing so much “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.”
While it doesn’t seem to shake the players much, Arizona State does need to find guys it can rely on from the bench in order to rest their best players for the biggest moments. They’ve managed with a small team, both numerically and physically, thus far, but that wear and tear can eventually be a problem.
Fortunately for the Sun Devils, help will be on the way after the season. ASU has three recruits, two of them power forwards, with plenty of time left to pick up new pieces.
3. Consistency Is Key For The Inconsistent Sun Devils
This season, ASU has built a reputation as a team that plays phenomenally well for a few minutes and disappears the next. ASU has frequently started slow on offense, then gone on a scoring run. Against 1-11 UCA, the game was tied at 10-10 early.
“I think we have moments of the game we play really well and then we drop,” Holder said. “We’ve just got to be more consistent talking in huddles and maintain a good competitive spirit.”
The struggle to stay afloat is due in large part to relying on the three-ball. ASU has twice tied the school record for made threes and attempted the second-most in school history against UCA. The Devils also lead the conference in attempts with 359, and are fifth in percentage.
This makes them strong against the zone, as Hurley and Co. are well aware.
“They run a good zone, and the only way to take them out of that zone is to knock them down,” Holder said after the team hit 18 threes against UCA. “Coach told us to keep shooting. We came out slow and sluggish but we picked it up in the second half and got to shooting well.”
However, the Sun Devils have a harder time against more aggressive man-to-man teams. They shot 4-26 from deep against Purdue and 4-19 against New Mexico State.
The Pac-12 has enough defensive talent that ASU’s reliance on the merciless deep ball could be a problem, but also could be their salvation.