Should Sun Devil fans be worried about ASU’s tourney prospects?
What a difference a month makes.
On Dec. 10, the upstart Arizona State Sun Devils went into Phog Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence and knocked off then-No. 2 Kansas, 95-85.
It was a signature win for the program under third-year head coach Bobby Hurley. It was the type of win that made the country take notice. In fact, the Sun Devils ascended from 16th in the AP Poll to 5th after beating the Jayhawks. They rose all the way to No. 3 after beating Vanderbilt, Longwood and Pacific to complete a perfect 12-0 non-conference record.
So to quote Mike LaFontaine (Fred Willard’s character in 2003’s A Mighty Wind), “wha’ happened?”
Conference play hasn’t looked or felt the same for the Sun Devils, who enter the fourth week of Pac-12 action at 2-3 in the conference, which ties them for seventh place with Oregon and Oregon State.
Sports Illustrated has put together their own scale of March Madness worry for teams around the country, and it involves “worry warthogs,” but that’s not all that important right now.
Writer Dan Greene explains the scale as such: The concern levels are relative to expectations; some teams may be finding their legitimate title hopes in jeopardy, while others are trying to simply make the tournament at all.
On a scale of 1-5, they rate ASU’s worry meter at a ‘3’.
The country’s nonconference darlings are having a rough go of Pac-12 play, beginning in 2-3 with both victories being nail-biters against also-rans (Utah and Oregon State). What’s gone wrong? The Sun Devils are shooting significantly worse (41.4% in conference play vs. 50.8% in nonconference) and their defense has become lax: after allowing more than one point per possession just four times in their first 12 games, they’ve done so against all five of their Pac-12 opponents. I’d imagine before the season any Sun Devils fan would have taken simply being in the Top 25 on Jan. 15 with wins over Kansas and Xavier, but getting back toward the top of the polls will take some cleaning up, as well as getting guard Tra Holder back on track.
The point is valid. ASU very well could be 0-5 in conference play. Utah’s Justin Bibbins’ three-pointer at the buzzer rimmed out in Salt Lake City as the Devils escaped with a three-point win. Saturday, in the Devils’ home win over Oregon State, that featured a big second-half comeback, the Beavers’ Tres Tinkle had an open look at a three with seconds remaining, but he missed, giving ASU a 77-75 win.
ASU, as the SI piece points out, hasn’t shot the ball as well since Pac-12 play got underway, but the opposition has. In 12 non-conference games, the Sun Devils held opponents to a shooting percentage of .409. In five conference games, that number has bumped up to .451.
Another key to Arizona State’s early success was the relentless nature of their four-guard rotation. Seniors Holder, Shannon Evans, Kodi Justice and freshman Remy Martin were hell on opponents in non-conference play. Against conference foes, each has seen a decrease in overall shooting percentage, 3-point percentage and per game scoring average, with the exception of Justice, who is averaging 15.4 points in Pac-12 play, nearly two points higher than his non-conference output.
The downturn in ASU’s results hasn’t discouraged Hurley.
“We may not be playing exactly like we were earlier in the season, and I know you go through different parts of the year where that’s going to be the case,” Hurley said Saturday following the win over Oregon State. “We’ve just got to push through the tough times and I know that we’re going to respond.”
Despite the lack of ranked opponents currently in the Pac-12 (only Arizona and ASU are in the top 25), history shows that navigating through the conference is difficult — and it doesn’t get any easier this weekend for Hurley’s squad. ASU travels to the Bay Area to face first-place Stanford (4-1) Wednesday night and Cal on Saturday.