Bobby Hurley optimistic from Sun Devils ‘encouraging’ performance
2022 began the same way 2021 ended for the Sun Devils men’s basketball team: racking up more losses.
Arizona State finished January 1-5, losing the last three games to Stanford, USC and Arizona. Entering the final full month of games, the Sun Devils hold a 6-12 record, the second fewest wins in the Pac-12.
But within the more recent losses, head coach Bobby Hurley has seen improvement in his team.
“It’s encouraging to see we’re playing the best we have all season now … we’re starting to make progress on the offensive end,” Hurley told Arizona Sports’ Bickley & Marotta on Tuesday morning. “We’re playing against the elite teams and we’re more than holding our own.”
Arizona State’s matchup against Arizona backs up Hurley’s optimism. On Saturday, the Sun Devils found themselves tied at halftime with the then-No. 3 ranked Wildcats, 32-32. They remained within two points at the eight-minute mark in the second half.
However, fouls by ASU gave Arizona a total of 32 free throws in the game, 17 more than the Sun Devils, helping Arizona to an 11-point victory in Tucson.
But the win was far from normal for the Wildcats. They scored 67 points on 32% shooting, both being the second-lowest totals of the season.
“I think it was a pretty good performance considering how good Arizona has been all year,” Hurley said. “We had our chances in a really tough environment.”
It was just a glimpse into what the Sun Devils have done all season, giving up 68.7 points per game all year, the lowest total since the 2014-15 season.
Most of ASU’s troubles have come on offense. Its 62.7 points per game marks the lowest since 2011-12. The Sun Devils have only two players averaging double-digit points per game in D.J. Horne (13.8) and Kimani Lawrence (10.4).
Playing a factor into that was the loss of Marcus Bagley to a knee issue three games into the season. The sophomore returned to ASU after scoring 10.8 points per game in his freshman year. He got off to a strong start, scoring 18 and 12 points in the first two games of 2021-22 before injuring his knee against North Florida.
“He’s a great kid and he’s been very supportive of his teammates. He’s been around and was at practice yesterday, doing his physical therapy,” Hurley said, updating the status of Bagley. “Now it’s just a matter of getting a plan in place and see if we can execute that plan that gives us enough time for him to make a return this year. But his best interest is above everything else and making sure he is 100% before he plays again this year.”
To fill Bagley’s shoes, the Sun Devils have seen the emergence of junior Jalen Graham. In his past five games, Graham has averaged 12 points and 6.2 rebounds per game on 51% shooting. He also knocked down the game-winning jumper against the Utah Utes on Jan. 17, instilling more confidence into his offense.
“Jalen has been excellent. He’s been very focused,” Hurley said. “He’s got great footwork and touch, and he’s starting to put it together, so I’m just excited to see him to continue to develop. We’re a different team if he is giving us that production on offense.”
Graham’s offense and the team’s defense will be much needed in the next stretch of games. The Sun Devils return home to host three ranked opponents in No. 19 USC on Thursday, No. 3 UCLA on Saturday and No. 7 Arizona on Monday. It is the first time since 2002 that ASU will face ranked opponents in five consecutive games.
While the end of the season seems to be a gauntlet, Hurley is seeing the team come together and produce good basketball.
“I think the guys understand how difficult this schedule is right now and over the next two weeks,” Hurley said. “If we stick to it and we keep getting better fractionally in each game, we can compete with most teams we’re going to play against.”