Bobby Hurley: ASU more equipped, experienced for stretch run

Feb 9, 2022, 7:05 PM | Updated: 7:38 pm

Arizona State forward Alonzo Gaffney (32) blocks a shot by UCLA forward Cody Riley (2) as Arizona S...

Arizona State forward Alonzo Gaffney (32) blocks a shot by UCLA forward Cody Riley (2) as Arizona State forward Jalen Graham, middle, defends during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022, in Tempe, Ariz. Arizona State won in triple overtime 87-84. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

If the Arizona State Sun Devils men’s basketball team sets aside its 7-14 record and measures its success by self improvement, there remains room for optimism ahead of a visit to the Washington state schools this week.

Nine games remain in the regular season. As of Wednesday, only one of those is against a ranked opponent.

Coach Bobby Hurley’s team has lost five of six, but even reflecting on a 91-79 defeat to the Arizona Wildcats on Monday, there is positive momentum coming off a grueling stretch of five consecutive games against top-20 ranked teams.

For one, transfers Alonzo Gaffney and Marreon Jackson have found some footing. On another note, ASU’s aggressive defensive efforts strung together to lift the team’s confidence against a brutal schedule over the past few weeks.

“We’ve eliminated a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of playing the top teams in our league,” Hurley told Arizona Sports’ Bickley & Marotta on Wednesday. “Hopefully we’re battle-tested …”

Starting with a Thursday visit to the Washington Huskies (9 p.m., ESPN 620 AM and 98.7 FM HD-2), the Sun Devils will find out whether progress that peaked most in a Saturday victory against the then-No. 3 UCLA Bruins was fool’s gold.

“It was pretty impressive to … be in those huddles,” Hurley said of his team’s 87-84, triple-overtime victory on Saturday against UCLA. “That’s why I said after the game (that) I wouldn’t have minded if we kept playing, because really loved coaching that team that night because they just had a resilient way about them.

“I just felt like that was the type of communication I was getting from players — talk about guys playing 47, 48 minutes — it was impressive they were up for that challenge.”

ASU attempted to capture that energy in a bottle by framing a busy week as an NCAA Tournament-style trek. ASU played the USC Trojans tough in a five-point loss two days before the UCLA victory. Then less than 48 hours after the upset in Tempe, the Sun Devils were hosting Arizona for a rescheduled game.

That got off to a fine start with Arizona State jumping on the rivals 14-1 a few minutes in, but the No. 4 Wildcats crept back quickly and took control in the second half.

“As they made a run at us, we didn’t have the necessary response the second half,” Hurley said.

Though the train came off the tracks, there were trends that spanned the USC, UCLA and Arizona games in the past week. More than anything, it’s that flashes of ASU’s defense have held up against talented teams.

USC shot a miserable 30% from the field, while UCLA hit 37%. Though the Wildcats shot 56% by the end of the day — Hurley would not go as far as blaming tired legs for ASU’s dropoff in the second half — the Sun Devils piled up 32 points off 20 Arizona turnovers.

For the Pac-12 season, ASU (3-8 in conference) ranks third by holding opponents to 40% shooting — though ranking first in free-throw attempts allowed per game might hint toward over-aggression on that end.

In terms of finding juice on offense that ranks last in the conference at 38% shooting from the field, there have been a few recent pops of diversity in how points have come about.

Point guard Marreon Jackson, who lost his starting role a week prior, averaged 20 points, 5.5 assists and 3.5 steals over those two games. He revealed that a wrist injury to his shooting side has started improving of late.

Additionally, ASU big man Alonzo Gaffney combined to go 5-for-9 from three-point over the last two games, adding a stretch element that could open up the offense in a new way.

“If (Gaffney) could even make it at a 40% clip, it would be outstanding for us moving forward,” Hurley said. “Marreon Jackson has been playing better last couple games. We’re seeing some different guys step up.

“It’s good to see that heading into the Washington game where they have the Syracuse zone where really going to force you to make some perimeter shots.”

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