Sun Devils gear up for big challenge down low

Feb 14, 2018, 5:43 PM

Arizona forward Deandre Ayton (13) works toward the basket as Arizona State's Romello White defends...

Arizona forward Deandre Ayton (13) works toward the basket as Arizona State's Romello White defends during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Dec. 30, 2017, in Tucson, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

(AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

TEMPE, Ariz. — Throughout this season, Arizona State has struggled in the post. In both wins and losses, bigs have tortured the Sun Devils in Pac-12 play, taking advantage of their inexperience to torch them in the paint.

No team did it better than the Arizona Wildcats, who the Sun Devils host on Thursday.

In their 84-78 win in their first matchup to open Pac-12 play, the Wildcats relied heavily on their size advantage to end ASU’s 12-game win streak. Freshman phenom DeAndre Ayton registered 23 points and 19 rebounds on 64 percent shooting and senior forward Dusan Ristic contributed 12 points and four rebounds, finishing third on the team in both categories.

But that’s nothing new for the Wildcats, who rely on the tallest tandem in the conference to set the tone in the paint and on the boards. Combined, Ayton and Ristic average 31.3 points and 17.7 rebounds per game, causing problems for same-heighted defenders, let alone ones they tower over.

Both Ristic and Ayton stand at least seven-feet down low, towering over every single Sun Devil. This height discrepancy presents a unique challenge that coach Bobby Hurley knows can’t be faced without a team effort if ASU wants to win its first game against Arizona in three years.

“We have to help those guys,” Hurley said. “We can’t leave them down there alone to contend with those two guys.”

None of the five Sun Devil forwards are taller than 6-10, giving both Ayton and Ristic room to operate above them, something that rarely happened before the first time the two teams played.

Coming off of a run against relatively small opponents, the Sun Devils did not appear ready for the length the Wildcats have when they played in Tucson. This particularly hit freshman forward Romello White, who said that game made him realize he needed to vary his approach against the rest of the Pac-12.

“Before, I could just really bully guys,” White said. “Once I started playing better bigs, I had to use more moves. I feel like I’m used to that now playing bigger bigs.”

Since that game, it’s been a mixed bag of success for 7-footers against the Sun Devils. In seven games, players listed at that height average eight points, but that number is deceiving. Three of those games — one each by UCLA’s Thomas Welsh, Utah’s Jayce Johnson and Stanford’s Josh Sharma — resulted in 14 points or more. The remainder — Johnson, California’s Kingsley Okoroh and Colorado’s Dallas Walton twice — combined for 13 points.

Arguably, Ayton and Ristic are more talented than that entire list.

While Ristic has had his moments in the sun, Ayton presents a more complete problem. The potential top pick in June’s NBA Draft is second on the team in points, first in rebounds and fourth in assists. But what allows him to be so dangerous for opponents?

“It’s everything,” Hurley said. “He alters shots around the basket, he’s got great hands to secure rebounds. The ball is just gone, he grabs rebounds so effectively. He moves well without the ball. He can shoot, he can score inside. He’s kind of the total package.”

While junior forward De’Quon Lake said he hasn’t paid much attention to how the rest of the Pac-12 has tried to defend Ayton, White said he’s watched other games to pick up on ideas of what to do.

“(USC forward Chimezie) Metu did a really good job,” White said. “I was just watching teams that we recently played and feel like I can take some things from that.”

But a “good job” against Ayton doesn’t mean he’s stopped. In 26 games, he has scored fewer than 10 points just twice and shot under 50 percent from the field just five times. His 16 double-doubles tie him for seventh in the nation. But White appears ready for the challenge.

“It’s probably going to be our biggest challenge of the game,” White said. “They give it to him a lot and he’s a big part of their offense, so if I do my job, then we’ll be all right.”

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Sun Devils gear up for big challenge down low