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Oregon State's JaQuori McLaughlin, left, has the ball tipped away Arizona State's Andre Adams during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Corvallis, Ore., Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017. (AP Photo/Timothy J. Gonzalez)
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Bobby Hurley: ASU playing ‘really strong’ defense going into Cal game

Oregon State's JaQuori McLaughlin, left, has the ball tipped away Arizona State's Andre Adams during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Corvallis, Ore., Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017. (AP Photo/Timothy J. Gonzalez)
LISTEN: Bobby Hurley, ASU men's basketball coach

The Arizona State University Sun Devils have been playing better of late, losing by one point Thursday to the current No. 5 team in the country in the University of Oregon Ducks – who went on to dismantle the then-fifth ranked University of Arizona Wildcats 85-58 on Saturday – and blowing out the Oregon State University Beavers 81-68 Sunday.

A big reason for this change in fortunes for a team that had lost six of its previous seven games prior to Sunday has been improved effort and focus on defense, according to coach Bobby Hurley.

“I was very impressed with our effort (last week), and our defense was really strong in both games,” Hurley told Doug and Wolf on 98.7 Arizona Sports Wednesday. “Our field goal percentage defense was (44) percent against Oregon and then (40) percent against Oregon State. So that’s been the best that we’ve done in league play, and it translated to us being very competitive in both games. In addition to the field goal defense, we were able to turn Oregon State over (17) times and only committed eight ourselves, and then, in the Oregon game, we committed six turnovers as a team. So really good on the road at tough places to play, and we handled the ball well, made good decisions, played good defense.”

The 11-13 (4-7 Pac-12) Sun Devils had allowed conference opponents to shoot 51.7 percent against them prior to the games against the Ducks and Beavers, so last week’s games marked a major step forward defensively.

Other than improved defense, another big factor for Arizona State’s progress has been a recent uptick in play from junior guard Shannon Evans.

“In the preseason, (Evans) was as dominant as Torian (Graham) was and Tra (Holder) and those guys who are playing at a different level on offense,” Hurley said. “So I saw that in the gym. It’s just sometimes that takes a little time. Sitting out a year, getting the rust of the whole season not playing. He was still putting up good numbers, but this was reminiscent of the week in Buffalo where he had a triple double on a Tuesday and then had (33) on a Saturday. The kid is a tremendous, tremendous player.”

The transfer from the University of Buffalo just had the hottest four-game scoring stretch of his career, averaging 22.3 points per game on 51.8 percent shooting from the field since Jan. 25. He had been averaging 15 points per game on 41 percent shooting in the Sun Devils’ first 20 games.

Another unsung player whom Hurley credits for his team’s improvement is junior guard Kodi Justice.

Although Justice has only cracked double-digit points in six of the team’s 24 games and ranks fifth on the team with 7.8 points per game, his intangibles make a big impression on his coach.

“He’s my kind of player, because he plays the game with imagination,” Hurley said. “He’s very creative out there with his passing and his ball handling. And you can see the joy that he plays the game with. He’s really just evolved and developed as a leader on the team. He’s 6-4 and he’s like 185 pounds, yet he’s going down there and he’s guarding 7-foot, 260-pound Drew Eubanks. And he’s battling him and working in the post, because we need him to because we’re undersized. So he’s sacrificing. He’s playing extremely hard. He’s a great communicator on defense. He’s our guy that would be like… a middle linebacker that’s just communicating in a defense, which is great. Very, very selfless player.”

The Sun Devils will look to continue their recent strong play at home against the 17-6 (8-3 Pac-12) University of California Golden Bears Wednesday at 9 p.m.

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