ASU Men’s Basketball: Red-hot Devils travel to Vegas for Continental Tire Invitational

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 06: Tra Holder
NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 06: Tra Holder /

After scoring over 90 points in four consecutive routs, the Sun Devils will travel to Las Vegas to take on Kansas State and either Xavier or George Washington in their first tests of the year.

For the first time during Bobby Hurley’s tenure in the Valley of the Sun, his Sun Devil basketball team has provided a sense of optimism in the early season.

It isn’t a fluke, either.

In their first four games, the Sun Devils have gotten off to an impeccable start on both ends of the floor. On the offensive end, ASU has tallied 90 or more points in four straight outings, the first time they’ve done so since the days of Lionel Hollins in 1975.

Thanks to the efficient play of their backcourt players, the Devils have been equally as dominant on defense. ASU is averaging 7.5 steals per game through their first four games, a total that’s helped limit their opposition to just 70.5 points per game on 39.8 percent shooting,

Although the guard play has been spectacular, coach Hurley attributes his team’s success to one particular factor early on: the sturdy production he’s seen out of his revamped front court.

“The fact that we have improved and upgraded our frontcourt has been a [huge] difference for us,” Hurley said. “The guards can play even better on offense now than they did last year.”

Last season, the Sun Devil offense thrived off of its three guard set of Tra Holder, Shannon Evans and Torian Graham, as the trio combined for nearly 50 points a game in the conference’s third best scoring offense. This year, the duo of Evans and Holder have been dominant once again, but they’ve been able to create in multiple ways.

With Romello White and De’Quon Lake adding 33 points a game on the low post, the Sun Devils have jumped out to the conference lead in assists (81) and assist to turnover ratio (1.8). Despite forwards Mickey Mitchell and Kimani Lawrence being unavailable until conference play, it’s clear that frontcourt production has been a huge reason for ASU’s hot start.

“Last year, we took tougher shots,” Holder noted. “This year, we got [an] inside presence, which makes the guards’ job much easier to shoot open shots [with] a lot more spacing.”

For this upcoming weekend, spacing will be key as the Sun Devils will possibly take on two of the nation’s premier defenses in Kansas State and Xavier.

Although the Wildcats of K-State haven’t topped 83 points on the year, they’ve more than made up for it on the defensive end of the floor. On the young season, the lengthy Wildcats have statistically been a top-three defense in the nation, forcing teams to just 50.8 points per game on 30.8 percent shooting.

Xavier, on the other hand, has seen much of their defensive production rise from the backcourt. The experienced duo of Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura have combined for 3.3 steals on the season, constantly forcing teams to play up-tempo and take bad shots on offense. It’s worked, with the Musketeers holding opponents to just 32.7 percent of the floor.

As the Devils get ready for their first neutral site matchups of the year, let’s take a quick look at some of the keys for victory this coming weekend.

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Get ALL of the Frontcourt Involved

Outside of the last game against UC Irvine, White and Lake have been outstanding on the floor together. Regardless, in the three games they’ve shared court time, the duo is shooting 76 percent from the floor while pulling down 18.5 rebounds per game.

However, player has been notably absent from the celebration of the newly-assembled frontcourt: Vitaliy Shibel.

After missing all of last season with an ACL tear, Shibel has been less than stellar in his return to the lineup, averaging just 2.8 points on 21.4 percent shooting. Known for being a stretch-big option, Shibel has yet to make an impression in the pick-and-pop game, as he’s shot just 9.1 percent from beyond the arc.

With players in Dean Wade and Mawdo Sallah of Kansas State likely looking to key in on ASU’s interior post-game, Shibel could be a huge X-factor if he’s able to find his stroke. Stretching the Kansas State defense out to the three-point line would allow more driving lanes for Holder and Evans at the top of the key, and could be huge in finding an offensive rhythm in the early going.

Although Shibel hasn’t looked impressive yet, having a breakout tournament could prove his worth to a Sun Devil offense looking to carve through stout paint protection on Thanksgiving Day.

Make Smart Decisions on Offense

For seemingly the first time in their Sun Devil careers, Tra Holder and Shannon Evans haven’t had to just score; as a result, their games have taken off to a new level.

Coming off of a trio of games where he earned Pac-12 Player of the Week honors, Holder has looked as dominant as he’s ever been in a Sun Devil uniform, averaging a career high in points at 22.3 per game along with 7 rebounds and 6.3 assists.

“I really didn’t do much but shoot the ball,” Holder said when talking about the award. “My teammates put me in a great spot.”

Being in great spots have kept the Sun Devil offense in a constant rhythm throughout their first four matches. Between Evans and Holder, the Sun Devils only cough up the ball at an average of three times per game while holding a turnover margin of +7.00, good for second in the Pac-12 standings.

Against lengthy opponents that will constantly look to exploit passing lanes, the guards of Arizona State will have continually be mindful of their passes on offense. If they don’t have a certain look or matchup they favor, it’ll be on them not to panic and look to reset and be patient.

On the flip-side, if the Devils can speed the game up, they should look to push in transition whenever possible. The Sun Devils have shown to be incredibly efficient on the fast break, and they must continue to do so in order to beat defenses down the floor.

Bring the Same Intensity

Although nobody can match Remy Martin in terms of visible facial intensity, the Sun Devils have been playing with a noticeable edge in their first four games, one that’s been characterized by a “40-minute” mentality that Hurley has instilled in his players.

On every possession, the Sun Devils have been active, alert and competitive, showing that their mental toughness has been constantly more intense than their opponents.

With several Power-Five opponents awaiting them in Las Vegas, every player will have to combine for excitement and emotion during successes on both ends of the floor. In single-elimination tournaments, momentum is key, and each possession will be decided by who works harder for a smaller victory.

“The quality of the competition is going to continue to get more difficult,” Hurley said. “We just have to continue to have energy.”

With Hurley having years of NCAA Tournament experience, he knows the upcoming days will be a preview of what the Sun Devils could possibly see ahead in their season. Because of that, he knows that he must plan like it’s that time of year and have his players express the same emotions.

“It’s going to be a good challenge,” Holder affirmed. “It’ll be [two] interesting game[s] for us, and hopefully we come out with the win[s].”

Next: ASU Men’s Basketball: Holder’s career night leads offensive outburst

The Sun Devils will open up the Continental Tire Invitational in Las Vegas at 5:30 p.m. MT against Kansas State, where you can view the game on FS1. The Devils will then take on either Xavier or George Washington Friday at a time to be determined, where the game can be viewed either on FOX or FS1.