ASU basketball in ‘do-or-die’ mode a game into Pac-12 play
TEMPE, Ariz. — The Arizona State Sun Devils opened their Pac-12 opener against the Utah Utes playing aggravated. That’s what would be expected for a team coming off an embarrassing home loss to Princeton, a result that knocked the conference’s only ranked team out of the Associated Press top-25.
ASU took away the Utes’ air space with ball pressure, jumped passing lanes and met opponents at the rim. Coach Bobby Hurley’s team bullied Utah with its athleticism and length to get in transition.
It built a 17-point lead in just more than 10 minutes. By the end of the night and after giving up 16 three-point makes to Utah, the second-most ever at home by ASU, the game ended with a 96-86 loss to the Utes (7-6).
“It’s a fragile game. It feels like last year. It feels like Groundhog Day,” Hurley said. “You know, quality wins, come back from Christmas and then you’re just struggling to find yourself. We’ve got to rally here.
“We’re not that same team (as before the break). We got to figure out why we’re not.”
The Sun Devils went 12-0 a year ago, rising to No. 3 heading into Pac-12 play before tumbling to an 8-10 conference record. ASU snuck into the First Four of the NCAA Tournament but fell to Syracuse.
Two games after beating Kansas, ASU feels the bruises of two painful punches to its postseason resume.
This year’s first conference game didn’t start so poorly. Arizona State led 28-11 with 9:40 to play in the first half and 33-17 with 7:35 remaining.
“Time and score, how the game’s going … those are the things that have to be considered in the shots that we take,” said Zylan Cheatham, who scored 17 points to go with five rebounds, two assists and two blocks. “Sometimes I don’t think it’s really considered.”
The Jekyll and Hyde act that followed a quick start made an observer wonder if the Sun Devils were closer to the team that lost to the 144th- and 177th-ranked teams in the KenPom standings over the past week. Or can ASU still be the one that defeated No. 1 Kansas before Christmas in the penultimate nonconference game of the regular season?
Either way, the Sun Devils feel like they must find out — and fast — just one conference game in.
“It’s do-or-die to me. The question I asked my guys is, ‘What we want to do with our season?'” Cheatham said. “Do we want beating Kansas and winning our Vegas tournament and all that to be the highlight of our season? Or do we want to buckle down and make something of it and go to the tournament and make history?
“I’m pretty sure we’ll find out the answer pretty soon in these next few games.”
The turn in the game Thursday came as quick trigger shots that had fallen for ASU instead were misses leading to Utah run-outs. Hurley’s team slogged in transition defense. Missed box-outs and blocks, plus failed closeouts on threes, also let the Utes back into the game.
Utah hit four threes and made three layups to finish the first half on a 22-10 run.
“It was just multiple possessions, multiple offenders of just quick shots or ill-advised shots, and then collective breakdowns of not getting back on defense,” Hurley said of the first half. “When you have a team down, especially at home, you got to give them no hope.”
The Utes kept the barrage on to start the second half thanks to more clangs on the Sun Devils’ end that led to transition threes.
And even when ASU did lock in defensively in the halfcourt, Utah guard Sedrick Barefield made enough plays off the bounce to push the Utes ahead with 24 points, six assists and five made threes.
With 2:42 left in the game, the Utes led 88-75, making it a 30-point swing from ASU’s 17-point first-half lead.
“I haven’t seen us play like this in that department of what we’ve been doing defensively all season,” Hurley said. “One game ago, it’s hard to shoot 32 percent and win even though your defense is good. Now on this night, we gave up 96 and they shot really good percentages. I’m going to have to take a look at what’s really going on and why these things are happening.”