Arizona State hoping to rekindle fast pace against Syracuse’s zone
When Arizona State walloped No. 1 NCAA Tournament seeds Kansas and Xavier early this season, the formula was simple.
Run. Attack the rim. If the defense is back, kick it to a shooter. And if that scrambling defense runs at the shooter, drive it again.
The results looked more than fine when it caught those two top NCAA Tournament seeds off guard — so did a 12-0 nonconference record.
But teams adjusted. Against lesser competition in Pac-12 play, opponents knew how important it was to slow the pace, and one easy way to take ASU’s three senior guards — not to mention freshman point Remy Martin — out of their rhythm was to pack the paint with zone defenses.
Doing so will be natural for the Syracuse Orange, who will oppose the Sun Devils in their NCAA Tournament play-in game at 6:10 p.m. MST Wednesday on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.
“That was the initial Kryptonite to our team — the zone,” head coach Bobby Hurley told Doug & Wolf Tuesday. “That’s the irony of us playing one of the best zone teams in the country. It affected our ability to score and push pace. Almost everyone zoned us this year, except Arizona.
“We have so much more preparation just from the live action and reps against it. We showed film. They are very good at it, they’re one of the biggest teams in the country with their length. But I think we have a better plan to attack it than we would have two months ago.”
Most notably, ASU fell 68-64 at Washington facing similar principles facing a zone implemented by first-year coach Mike Hopkins, who served from 1996-2017 under Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim after playing for the future Hall of Famer.
Six of Arizona State’s 15 turnovers in that game came on steals by lanky swingman Matisse Thybulle atop that zone. Meanwhile, bulky center Noah Dickerson battered ASU with 21 points and 16 rebounds.
But the Orange aren’t the Huskies.
They have more length than just Thybulle, and in the middle stands 7-foot-2 center Paschal Chukwu and his 2.7 blocks per game hoping to erase Sun Devil shot attempts.
“Their size, athleticism, it’s just a different zone all around,” ASU senior Kodi Justice told reporters in Dayton. “So it’s hard to compare their zone to any other zones. But the way we attacked Washington’s zone with being able to get the ball to the middle, attack the gaps, that’s definitely things we’re going to have to do.”
How will the Sun Devils combat it?
The easy answer is beat that zone down the court.
But when the pace is slowed, ASU hopes it can win extra possessions by offensive rebounding. Arizona State expects its size disadvantage can be made up by crashing the glass against the Orange.
Forward Mickey Mitchell could be a key piece as well.
He’s been used by Hurley as a high-post playmaker who can face up zones and make plays for his teammates. That, or Mitchell has the ball handling and physicality to attack the interior of Syracuse’s defense.
“Mickey I think has got a good feel for the game,” Hurley told reporters in Dayton. “He’s very good IQ, good passer. He’s strong. When he catches it, rarely do guys just take the ball from him. And then he’s got the vision to move it. And then he’s physical kind of a downhill attack guy too from the high post.
“So you have to — you can’t beat a zone as good as Syracuse’s zone one way; you’ve got to do it multiple ways. And obviously the high post is important, and you need a guy in there that makes good decisions. And I think Mickey does a good job in that role.”
— Justice, Shannon Evans and Tra Holder face the finale of their Sun Devil careers when the tournament run ends. Hurley said watching Holder as the team was announced in the Big Dance during Selection Sunday was “unbelievable.”
“Tra Holder has had an outstanding season as a senior. He’s — 40 points against Xavier, 30 against Kansas, 29 at Arizona. He’s that type of player,” Hurley said. “To see that guy at my house on Sunday just break down and cry, and Tra is — he’s got a poker face, man. He doesn’t show a ton of emotion outwardly.”
— Hurley said practice on Tuesday was an energetic one and the Sun Devils used the relief of making the tournament to reset themselves.
“We’re the underdog,” Justice said. “We’re not looked at to be one of the guys that can win this tournament. So we can go out there and just play our game, play free, do what we do and not worry about anything. It’s literally we’re out here playing basketball, having fun, so now being the hunter you can go out and play free instead of on most nights when you’re the hunted you get everyone’s A game.”
— As ASU preps for Syracuse, Hurley’s old Buffalo team and his former assistant coach, Nate Oats, readies to face ASU’s rival, Arizona, in the 4-13 matchup in Boise, Idaho.
“I gave him a couple of nuggets of things that we focused on when we played Arizona. And we played them very well each time we played him this year,” Hurley said. “So I know he’s going to — he’s a worker. He’s watching film. He’s going to have his guys ready to play. Arizona is playing a phenomenal level right now. They’ve gotten so much better over the last couple of weeks.