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ASU expert breaks down the Sun Devils, previews the Arizona games and makes score predictions

Arizona State v Arizona Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images

The coronavirus pandemic has caused college basketball teams to adapt this season. For the Arizona Wildcats and Arizona State Sun Devils, that means playing twice in a five-game span, starting Thursday in Tempe and then again Monday in Tucson.

Though ASU was picked to finish second in the Pac-12, it has struggled this season, entering the series 4-6 overall and 1-3 in conference play. Arizona has been about as good as expected, currently sitting at 10-3 overall and 4-3 in the Pac-12.

We wanted to know more about the Sun Devils before these in-state rivals hit the court, so we caught up with our sister site House of Sparky for some insight.

Here is a Q&A with staff writer Jack Johnson.

Ryan Kelapire: Expectations were high for the Sun Devils this season, but they have really struggled. What’s gone wrong?

Jack Johnson: Expectations were high, as high as they have been for the program since the James Harden era. And for good reason. When a team adds highly regarded recruits, expectations will rise. Then you factor in the team was also bringing back it’s two leading scorers from last season, and a lot of really smart people thought ASU was the favorite to win the Pac-12.

The season isn’t over, but the reality is, ASU is a team without an identity. Looking at the team just from a physical aspect, one would expect the team would find its success by bombarding its opponents from 3-point range.

That simply hasn’t happened. ASU hasn’t been good at shooting 3s, they’re not even average, they’re below average. The Sun Devils currently rank 243rd out of 340 in the NCAA at 3-point field goal percentage rankings with 31.5%.

There are a lot of other small issues that have plagued the Sun Devils during this losing streak, but with a rotation that lacks size, the winning strategy for the team is to trade 2s for 3s. So far, they’ve rarely held up their end.

RK: On the other hand, when the Sun Devils are playing well, what does a winning formula look like?

JJ: Make a lot of threes, and run like crazy. As mentioned before, the Sun Devils are almost always going to face a mismatch on the boards, but they can combat that by using their speed in the transition game to strike for a layup, a kickout three, or, a drive and a foul.

The buck stops with Remy Martin, if he’s aggressive and looking for his shot, the team seems to relax and play around their leader. In the four games ASU has won this season, Remy is averaging 23.8 points per game. In the other four games Martin has played in that ASU lost, Martin is averaging just 9.3 points per game.

In summary, the three key ingredients to the Sun Devil winning formula are as follows:

  1. Avoid games like the loss to UTEP where the Sun Devils shot a miserable 1-18 on three-pointers.
  2. Try not to get killed on the boards so bad that it stifles the transition game.
  3. Get Remy Martin going on offense, early and often.

RK: Marcus Bagley and Josh Christopher were very highly-ranked recruits. How have they fared as freshmen?

JJ: Both players weren’t just highly ranked recruits for ASU, they would have been the jewels of any recruiting class no matter where they landed.

Christopher was obviously the big get for the Devils. A five-star recruit, 247 Sports had him ranked as the No. 3 ranked shooting guard and the No. 12 player overall in the 2020 class. He broke out on national television against then No. 3 Villanova with 28 points, and has played steady ever since, currently averaging 16.5 points per game. It’s clear when you watch him he has all the tools to be a two-way force, and if he improves his three-point shot, he could go in the first round of the NBA Draft.

In any other year, Bagley probably would have received a ticker-tape parade down Mill Avenue. But with much of the fanfare about Christopher, the younger brother of Sacramento Kings forward Marvin Bagley was seen as the Barnacle Boy to Christopher’s Mermaid Man.

But there is a good case to be made at this point that Bagley is more NBA-ready than Christopher. He can rebound, he can space the floor as a shooter, he can create for his teammates, you rarely see him turn the ball over or attempt a bad shot. The two-man game on the wing that he was working with Christopher down the stretch against Oregon State nearly won the team the game. Look for more of that as the season continues.

RK: How has the backcourt of Remy Martin and Alonzo Verge come along this season?

JJ: ASU has struggled at times with having too many cooks in the kitchen on offense. Both Martin and Verge are incredibly talented players that, when they’re on, can score almost at will. The issue is, both players need the ball in their hands to make things happen, especially Martin.

Part of the reason that Arizona State has struggled so much this season is because Martin and Verge have had great games, they just haven’t had them on the same night. In the season opener against Rhode Island, Martin scored 26 while Verge added only eight points. Verge had 25 against SDSU, but Martin struggled and managed only nine points to support his running mate in the backcourt. I could go on, but you get the idea.

RK: Aside from those four players, are there any X-factors we should know about?

JJ: Holland Woods. The former Portland State standout transferred to ASU this season and has given the Sun Devil offense the catch-and-shoot threat from the perimeter that Martin and Verge aren’t.

Woods struggled early in the season finding his place in the rotation with so many guards, but since his 18 point breakout game against USC, he appears to have settled into his role as a three-point shooter that can craft his way to scoring chances at all three levels.

RK: The Sun Devils statistically are one of the shortest teams in the country and I assume that’s one of the reasons they struggle on the glass. How have they fared about bigger teams like Arizona?

JJ: You would be correct. It’s hard to get rebounds when you’re matching 6’9” guys against seven-footers. To answer your question about how they have fared, the answer is not well.

Through the first ten games, ASU has grabbed 90 fewer rebounds than their opponents. As much as it hurts me to say, if they’re going to start eating into that total, it’s probably not going to start against Arizona.

RK: How are ASU fans feeling about Bobby Hurley right now?

JJ: Great question. Hurley is a fascinating topic of discussion around the Tempe campus.

On one hand, his offenses have always been feast or famine. One day, they’re shooting the lights out in a program-defining win against Kansas, the next game, they’re dropping the ball to Princeton. It’s frustrating to watch at times. This season, I feel like I could count the amount of plays that have led to easy buckets or good shot attempts on a few fingers.

On the other hand, Hurley is an amazing recruiter. Three of the Sun Devils’ top-four rated recruits ever have been signed by Hurley (Christopher, Bagley and Luguentz Dort), and his status as a college basketball legend will always sell itself. That is, until Michael Jordan finds memory-erasing technology that will make people forget that Hurley and Chris Webber diced up the 1992 Dream Team during a scrimmage.

So, most fans say you take the good with the bad. But one has to wonder how Dort went from being a top recruit, to not being drafted, to then becoming a borderline NBA all-star. There seems to be a gap in his development that traces to Hurley and his coaching staff. If the cycle repeats itself with Christopher and Bagley, then I would say we’ll have a different conversation.

But for now, Hurley is the best man for the job.

RK: What are the keys to beating Arizona and ending this losing streak?

JJ: Follow the winning formula. Continue to build open the pick-and-pop offense with Christopher and Bagley. Limit the Wildcats to under 10 second-chance points

RK: What are your score predictions for Thursday and Monday?

JJ: Hard to see ASU coming away with two victories considering the team still has a long way to go, but the Sun Devils showed some serious fight in their one point loss to Oregon State. If they can keep that up, I feel confident giving them a split. So let’s say this.

Thursday: Arizona 78 - Arizona State 69

Monday: Arizona 81 - Arizona State 85