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It’s not always sunny in Tempe

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The 2011-2012 Arizona State Sun Devil basketball season was, to say the absolute least, disappointing. A win total that matched their final ranking spot in the Pac-12, at 10 wins and 10th place in the conference is not something that the ASU basketball department wants to get accustomed to achieving. However, after analyzing game tape from last season, and with virtually the same product and systems returning to the Sun Devils squad, Sparky is wondering who turned off the lights down in his domain, because it is not looking too bright.

The Sun Devils were blown out in an almost countless number of “efforts” last season, which is the first place that should be sniffed out when investigating why ASU was so horrid last year. When taking a look at game film, an observation that aggressively jumps out at you is the number of wide open 3-point shots the opposing team is afforded each and every game. Now, you astute readers out there might be saying “that’s what we are expecting to happen.” This might be rattling around in your brain because ASU defends with coach Herb Sendek’s 2-3 matchup zone (a defensive decision we will address in the forthcoming text). However, even though the zone is designed to force 3-point attempts, the players still have to close out on the ball– an imperative action that is absent far too many times, wide open three, after wide open three. When one sees this film on tape it honestly makes you cringe.

Teams have made ASU pay dearly for leaving them open outside the arch. Part of the reason opposing players are so often free is because players such as 6-foot-7 forward Jonathan Gilling and 7-foot-2 center Jordan Bachynski lack the quickness to close out to the 3-point line. This was brutally on display in the Dec. 31 game against the University of Arizona, in which the hated Wildcats went 8-20 from three, a 40 percent 3-point field goal percentage. While this is quite respectable, it looked even worse in person; so bad was the Sun Devils’ rotation that the commentator of the game was driven to stating, “I’ll say it again, their bigs just cannot get out and cover.” Unfortunately this was the merit truth.

When ASU isn’t busy getting 3-pointers crammed down their throats and they are fortunate enough to force consistent misses, another problem arises: ungodly penetration in the paint. This simply should not happen. It shouldn’t happen because there is a 7-foot-2 center and a 6-foot-7 forward down in that area, and it shouldn’t happen because a big upside of running zone is there being no room for dribbling and driving to the hoop. However, Arizona State finds a way to let that happen. A play that stands out very vividly was against Colorado on Jan. 19 where Jordan Bachynski just got embarrassed. No, I’m not talking about the vicious dunk in which he got posterized. No, in this instance, he rotated over in the paint and let a guard just lay the ball up over his 7-foot-2 body. It led the commentator to make the call in amazement, “Oh, at 6-1 he went over the top of the 7-footer.” Although Bachynski ended the season tied for sixth in blocks in the Pac-12, for each of the 41 blocks he had last season there was a late rotation and close out that came with that.

As was stated previously, head coach Herb Sendek runs the 2-3 matchup zone defense, which on tape is just a mess in so many departments. This defense is designed to have the on-ball defender close out on the man, and have the off-ball defenders provide help defense: actions that rarely happen. Quite often Sun Devil players are seen standing around watching the shot go up; not boxing out, not putting a body on the man, not putting their hands up, and not moving their feet; really abandoning all defensive principles in general. An entire article could be dedicated to breaking down and admonishing how slow the ASU players’ rotation is when in zone-like duties, as well as how lackadaisical they are in help-side defense. However, that is for a different time, the film room, or in a booming scream after a back door layup in practice perhaps.

It might seem like the Sun Devils’ defensive ineptitudes are being embellished, but the painful proof was there all last season. For instance, in the waning moments of the Sun Devils’ game against Southern Mississippi, after ASU tied the game up from the free throw line, a Southern Miss player took the ball up the floor with minimal pressure. No Arizona State defender stopped the ball on the break, and the Southern Miss player was able to step into a 3-pointer, with just a slight close out and drain the winning 3 as the buzzer sounded. Perhaps that example does not convince you. Let’s try Jan. 21 against Utah, a game on tape in which seemingly every single 3-pointer attempted by the Utes was uncontested. Utah ended the game shooting 9 of 17, a 52.6 percentage that is absolutely unreal. Just as Bane was Gotham City’s reckoning, the uncontested, open 3 is Arizona State’s.

Arizona State University’s basketball team has great obstacles in front of them before they can even think about achieving greatness. However, despite their leading scorer from last season, Trent Lockett, transferring to Marquette for family reasons, virtually the same core of players is back. Four returning starters, a former Pac-12 Coach of the Year, and two new former NBA coaches arriving to help as assistants all will be with the organization this season. Another year together, another year to get better. With hard work every day in practice, and some substantial coaching up of players, the Sun Devils still will most likely not be seeing any banners raised in Wells Fargo Arena after this season. However, maybe, just maybe, after this season, Sparky will see hope, promise, and, with good fortune, some light at the end of the tunnel.

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