It’s important to know your enemies, even if they’re Sun Devils.
ASU, Arizona’s opponent on Saturday afternoon at McKale Center, comes to town with a 6-11 overall record and just a 2-5 mark in Pac-12 play. It’s been a rough season for That School Up North, which has suffered through a long COVID pause, had a game get canceled because its arena—AKA McKale North—lost power and just had to play without a head coach after Bobby Hurley and a player were suspended one game for confronting officials after a close loss at Stanford over the weekend.
That might be all that most UA fans care to know about ASU, but it’s always best to have a full scouting report. To help with that, we reached out to Jack Johnson from SB Nation sister site House of Sparky to find out about the Sun Devils.
Here are his smooth answers to our rough questions:
AZ Desert Swarm: There was a 10-day stretch in December when ASU beat Oregon, Grand Canyon and Creighton, with two of those victories on the road, but the rest of the season the Sun Devils have gone 3-11 with six of those losses by 12 or more points. Has this team ever been able to get in a rhythm?
Jack Johnson: “It did look like there was a break in the clouds during that stretch. But in the delicate undertaking it is to construct a team in today’s college basketball world (and in Bobby Hurley’s case, nearly from scratch) COVID-19 is the toddler that smashes down your carefully laid Jenga game.
“The team has been out of rhythm ever since their virus-induced hiatus in December, and it’s hard to blame them. The Sun Devils have played such little basketball over the past six weeks that it has almost been like starting over from the beginning. There’s also been a few injuries and illnesses, primary among them the knee injury to Marcus Bagley, but the only way to get better at team basketball is to play competitive basketball, and that has happened too infrequently for the Sun Devils to really establish themselves this season.”
For so long ASU’s identity was attached to the spirited play of guys like Remy Martin, but he and so many others from last season’s team are gone. How would you describe this squad’s identity?
“It’s gritty to a fault. If the Sun Devils win, it’s Clint Eastwood, squash-the-cigar-and-never-flinch type of win. If they lose, it’s because they showed up with a rock to a gunfight.
“This team has an inveterate identity, and it all centers around their inability to consistently put points on the board. They must stop you from scoring and turn you over, there really hasn’t been another way to win this year.
“Bobby Hurley said after the Colorado loss he has never coached a team which has struggled this much offensively. The team has eclipsed 70 points just once since November. It’s honestly stunning considering how much offensive firepower they supposedly brought in through the portal. And yes, it has been that much tougher to stomach with Remy Martin finding so much success at Kansas.”
Guard DJ Horne seems to be the most consistent of ASU’s newcomers. What are his best attributes, and what does he struggle with?
“He has been a revelation. One of the only new Sun Devils to live up, and in his case, exceed expectations, Horne has lit it up from 3-point land (39.8 percent). The offensive scheme does not do much to free him up off the ball, so the majority of Horne’s points come off the bounce, which is even more impressive.
“It’s difficult to analyze where Horne struggles. He’s certainly not as good of a defender as his backcourt mate Marreon Jackson, but Jackson is one of the best in the conference. I’d say there are moments of inconsistency with Horne, nights he can all but disappear off the stat sheet. The best players find a way to scrounge up double digits, and the Sun Devils need those nights to be Horne’s floor.”
The Sun Devils are dead-last in offensive efficiency in Pac-12 play, per KenPom, shooting only 37.6 percent and averaging less than 58 points per game. What’s keeping the offense from producing?
“A lot of times, you have to rely on advanced stats to dissect where teams are struggling. With Arizona State, the cause is right in front of your face. The team consistently struggles with spacing and movement. Ironically, it is what affected the offense last season, with virtually an entire different roster. The ball tends to stay tethered to a player on the perimeter, and there doesn’t seem to be much intent into any of the motions the offense runs.
“It results in a lot of end-of-the-clock, forced jumpers, or wild attempts to draw a foul. Or worse, galling 3-point attempts from way beyond the arc. It will likely show itself again while they’re playing Arizona. There just isn’t enough eye movement or threats of backdoor cuts to the basket to get the defense off-balance.”
The massive foul discrepancy in the loss at Stanford notwithstanding, the actions that led to Hurley and guard Jay Heath getting suspended were a bad look. Is there concern about the team coming apart at the seams, or that Hurley is losing them? And if so, do you think his future at ASU is in jeopardy?
“No, I don’t have concerns about Hurley. He is the same guy he was when he was hired to coach Arizona State basketball. On top of that, he is the same guy who clocked Christian Laettner in a scrimmage when the two were at Duke in the early 90s. Hurley is a fiery guy, you take the good with the bad there. Against Stanford, there was a whole lot of bad. But this team is behind Hurley, he is doing the right things behind closed doors. He talks to these players, and encourages them time and again.
“Last season, a case could have been made that Hurley had lost the team. I’ll flip that phrase around, and say it’s more accurately described as Hurley really didn’t know a lot of his guys to begin with due to the pandemic. It’s hard to build a team in those circumstances. He has a mountain of excuses considering the injury to Bagley, the ongoing pandemic and transfers not turning out like expected when they were promoted into a major conference.
“Still, the seat is probably as warm as it has ever been.”
Prediction time. Does ASU put it all together and pull off a big upset, or does Arizona bounce back from its performance at UCLA and a third straight over the Sun Devils? What will the score be?
“Considering where these teams are, an Arizona win going away would be unsurprising. But keep in mind that the teams are 3-3 in the last six contests, and Arizona State normally plays their rival very tough. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Sun Devils hang around until about seven minutes left. That’s when it comes down to who makes the shots when it counts. Arizona separates itself there, and pulls away for a 75-65 victory.”