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The 5: Keys for Arizona State to remain a top-5 team in the country

This Feb. 18, 2017 photo shows Arizona State head coach Bobby Hurley watching from the bench area in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Pullman, Wash. Arizona State is expected to make a push for the NCAA Tournament this season after coach Bobby Hurley added several talented big men to go with his trio of senior guards. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Bobby Hurley’s team in Tempe has quickly gone from darkhorse to make the NCAA Tournament to one of the favorites to win the Pac-12.

After a win over No. 2 Kansas on the road and a No. 5 AP Poll ranking that has put the team on the map, they have gone from almost no eyeballs on them to many, both locally and nationally.

In order for the Sun Devils to keep this momentum going, here are The 5 keys for their play to stay at that level as they get closer to conference play.

Keep playing Hurley’s brand of basketball

Senior guards Tra Holder and Shannon Evans II looked like the right mix heading into the start of last season. Both are not natural point guards, so the two could equally share the duties of running the offense while doing what they do best: score.

It didn’t work so well last year, but it turns out all they needed was time.

Holder and Evans are two of the 11 players in the country averaging at least 18 points and five assists a game, per Sports-Reference.

While they aren’t capable of next-level passes and playmaking, the two continuously are keeping the pace of play high, attacking the basket and keeping the ball moving. That’s exactly what Hurley wants.

If Holder doesn’t have the look one possession, he passes to Evans. If Evans doesn’t have it, he passes to freshman Remy Martin, who comes in the same vein as a relentless slasher who is capable of the right pass.

If Martin doesn’t like the look, he passes to senior Kodi Justice, who, while not as quick and agile as the previous three, has the most creativity of the four and is capable of turning nothing into something.

The team is shooting 64.8 percent at the rim according to Hoop Math, good for 96th in the country. That’s a great number for a team that has three guards on the floor at nearly all times, and guards that do not have overwhelming size to finish well with contact.

The Sun Devils are always going to have at least two of those guys on the court as well. Holder is averaging 36.1 minutes per game, Evans is at 36, Justice posts 33.1 and Martin plays 26.3 and is continuing to get more time as the freshman earns the trust of Hurley.

What this does is constantly keep defenses on their toes, but, more importantly, has the ball and offense moving to have everyone engaged.

Combine this with the edge and toughness all of Hurley’s teams play with and it is a team no one in the country will want to play.

Instead of the ball sticking like it did last year, they keep it moving, which makes them all the more lethal because of the next point.

Maintain efficiency from deep

(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Through nine games, Arizona State is shooting 42.7 percent from 3-point range.

The best part of this fact is that the three senior guards have taken 83 percent of the teams’s 3-point attempts (176 attempts in less than 10 games!) while shooting a combined 44.3 percent on those attempts.

What that means is they are spacing the floor for each other to maximize what three of the four do best in taking defenses off the dribble.

In the way they are getting those makes, though, there’s a drop coming.

Per Hoop Math, Arizona State is assisting on 73.6 percent of its three-point field goals. That ranks 325th out of 351 teams in the country.

Over one-fourth of their trey bombs are not coming off ball movement, which is a red flag for the percentage to drop.

If Arizona State, however, has the expected drop-off and goes to around 36 to 39 percent, that’s still more than good enough for its offense to thrive.

Get Kimani Lawrence up to speed

Leading up to the season, the buzz wasn’t surrounding the senior guards of Arizona State, but, rather, the play of the freshmen Martin and Kimani Lawrence.

Lawrence, in particular, checked the boxes this team desperately needed from a roster outlook standpoint.

They had their guards and they had their big men, but now they needed someone on the wing.

As a stretch four, freshman Vitaliy Shibel hasn’t been cutting it, shooting 37 percent from the field.

They need an athletic wing who can run up and down with the guards, be another lethal finisher around the rim and be another weapon to score.

That’s Lawrence, but unfortunately for the Sun Devils, Lawrence broke his foot in mid-November and was ruled out four to six weeks.

The 6-foot-7 forward uses power and speed as one of the best slashers on the team, and unlike the four guards, is a threat to rise up and put someone on a poster at any moment.

He’s a reliable shooter as well, but beyond that, doesn’t have much complexity to his game.

That’s actually what is best for business at this point, because the guards can set him up in his spots while his game develops and thrives with the team’s breakneck pace.

He is the missing piece of the puzzle to make Arizona State one of the best teams in Pac-12 play, and luckily for them, the timeline should have him back by the end of December when those conference games begin.

Keep the bigs out of foul trouble

(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

While the seniors were shooting the lights out, one of the bigger developments in ASU’s start was the play of freshman big Romello White and junior college transfer De’Quon Lake.

The two gave the Sun Devils a duo of an interior presence they haven’t had in a long time.

Neither are reliable post scorers, but are springy jumpers who love to get physical inside by blocking shots and banging bodies on the glass.

Best of all, they give the guards a reliable finisher around the rim for dump-offs once they get past their man on the perimeter and force the defense to make a decision.

They are hyper-productive.

White is averaging 16.1 points and nine rebounds a game while Lake is managing 9.2 points and 6.6 rebounds on only 20.6 minutes a game.

While the Sun Devils will spend time playing four guards and have Mickey Mitchell and Lawrence coming back into the mix, they offer a different type of play together and give the team at least some sort of rebounding.

The issue, though, has been the two racking up fouls.

Lake is fouling every 7.4 minutes, making him a threat to rack up two or three quick ones and have to sit out key stretches of the game. While White is at a much lower rate of fouling every 10.5 minutes, he’s more reliable and important than Lake at the moment and can’t be sitting on the bench.

The team needs at least one of them in the game at all times and has to avoid situations they have already run into this season when both are in foul trouble.

Pac-12 Player of the Year Tra Holder?

(AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

Because of the balanced attack, Holder’s season is going a bit under the radar.

Averaging 21.2 points, 5.6 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game, Holder is one of two players in the country to be posting a 20-5-5 line this season.

It goes a bit deeper, though.

If we take into account Holder’s ridiculous 46.3 percentage from deep on 6.1 attempts per game, he meets some lofty company.

Only 14 players since 1993 have posted at least 20 points and five assists per game while shooting at least 40 percent from 3-point range on five 3-point attempts per game or more, per Sports-Reference.

Names on that list stand out, like Damon Stoudamire, Steve Nash, Markelle Fultz and Jay Williams, and Holder would be the only player besides Fultz to do it in a Power 5 conference since Williams did it for the Blue Devils in 2001.

That’s not only conference player of the year type stuff, that’s All-American and National Player of the Year type stuff.

ASU is going to have games where the offense is stagnant and the perimeter shots aren’t falling. Those are the games where they will need to be carried by a next-level player, and Holder appears to be that player this year.

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