Contributing writer Eric Menkhus is an avid fan of Sun Devil athletics and helps moderate the free and premium message boards at www.devilsdigest.com, posting as BigESunDvl.
First, I want to thank the Devils In Detail crew for inviting me to do a guest blog and for allowing me to blog about one of my favorite topics — Sun Devil basketball. Yes, I am one of the seemingly few people that enjoy watching, thinking about, and discussing Sun Devil hoops.
Unfortunately, the number of people that are interested in having a serious discussion of ASU basketball has dwindled in recent seasons. It seems like most people now just want to rant about the last two seasons or simply shrug their shoulders and admit they don’t follow basketball that closely. The losing seasons, the slow down offense, constant transfers of players, and “circle the wagons” mentality within the program that led to a lack of communication and a “talking points” strategy from coaches and administrators has left its mark on fan support.
Admittedly, the last two seasons have been really rough to watch. There hasn’t been anyone on the ASU squad that demanded double teams, thereby creating opportunities for teammates on offense. Anyone with much basketball IQ at all knows that offensive basketball is really tough when the five guys on the floor can be guarded one-on-one without help from their defensive teammates.
Essentially, that’s what we’ve witnessed for much of the last two seasons. Trent Lockett was a solid player and could score somewhat consistently against most defenders, but he was not a prolific scorer that could carry a team so most opponents just decided to let him get his 15-20 points per game and not let the other guys on the floor beat them. And in those situations in which Lockett was able to draw an extra defender, his ball handling and passing skills were not often strong enough to consistently create opportunities for teammates.
Not surprisingly, Jordan Bachynski’s emergence in the post last season coincided with increased efficiency on the offensive end for the Devils. When teams decided to double Bachynski in the post, like UofA did in the game late last year, it created opportunities for others, such as Jon Gilling, to get open and make shots.
Add to that a defense that promotes a slower pace while not earning the number and frequency of turnovers, tipped balls, etc., and games were often painful to watch. This is especially true when the other basketball team in town, the Suns, featured a fluid style led by one of the preeminent point guards in the game. Comparatively, ASU basketball looked like it was operating in slow motion.
But, luckily, this is a new year. Coaches and players comments, early practice reports, and the maroon and gold scrimmage point to a major shift in offensive pace and defensive philosophy. So far, it appears the promise of a faster paced offense geared to take advantage of newly eligible point guard Jahii Carson’s speed and skills is going to come to fruition. Additionally, the defense at the scrimmage was exclusively (unless I missed a few possessions) man to man.
So, it seems that many of the gripes fans had regarding the past couple of seasons are going to be addressed, although the effectiveness of the new offense and defense is yet to be determined and won’t really be known until the Thanksgiving tournament in Las Vegas.
There are going to be plenty of player-by-player analyses of the 2012-2013 team (and I may even write one of those over at www.devilsdigest.com), so I’m not going to do that here. Instead, I want to discuss what fans need to see to start enjoying ASU basketball again.
First and foremost, as always, winning is important. I don’t believe that most rational fans will need to see 20+ wins and an NCAA Tournament invitation this year to enjoy ASU basketball and to feel some hope for the future. But there can’t be any more losses to the NAUs and Pepperdines of the world. Those losses were embarrassing and infuriating, and made many fans wonder if their time was being well-spent following ASU basketball. The Devils also need to win games at home against relatively similar teams and look competitive against the better teams. And pulling off an upset or two along the way would help, too. That said, a finish in the bottom third of the conference would make it very hard for any fan to get excited about the future of ASU basketball.
In addition to some wins, Jahii Carson needs to produce. I don’t know if he needs to live up to the hype, as the hype has painted him as the savior of ASU basketball, which is unfair (full disclosure – I have called him “Jahiisus” a few times myself, although mostly tongue-in-cheek). But Jahii being easily handled by opposing defenders would be very deflating for the fan base. Fans are desperately looking for something or someone to get excited about. Jahii’s skills, athleticism, and the flair in his game can provide entertainment and excitement, even when the wins aren’t piling up by the dozen.
Other than the two factors above, which I believe are the most important ones, fan interest and excitement will increase as more of the following show themselves to be true:
The newly formed student group, the “942 Crew,” finds a way to at least fill the lower portion of the student section with loud, engaged, and supportive students. Wells Fargo Arena has lacked any sort of fun game day atmosphere for much of the last two years. Making games fun through student involvement, chants, and support would go a long way toward increasing fan interest and attendance.
Evan Gordon provides an offensive spark and the size of defenders doesn’t significantly hamper his ability to produce on the offensive end.
Jordan Bachynski continues to be assertive and hit free throws.
Jonathan Gilling avoids the dreaded sophomore slump (which I believe is usually attributed to coaches spending an offseason learning a player’s weaknesses).
Carrick Felix gets the ball in transition often, resulting in a lot of “above the rim” plays and highlights. His dunk in the maroon and gold scrimmage was a “wow” moment and I hope that it’s the first of many from him.
The ex-NBA assistant coaches pay off in recruiting, landing an unexpected player or two.
In the end, I think Sun Devil fans need to accept the fact that, at least right now, our hoops team probably isn’t going to the NCAA Tournament this season. The key will be for the team and coaches to provide something that has been in short supply the last two years — hope. I’ve always said that any team that isn’t peddling wins to the fans better be peddling hope. For the last couple seasons, even the “hope for the future” message was difficult to grasp onto because of the way the team looked on the floor, the transfers, etc. But Jahii and some recruiting success can build that hope quickly, something the program needs badly.
See you at Wells Fargo Arena!