ASU Men’s Basketball: Devils show flashes of versatility in a grind-fest

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 16: Head coach Bobby Hurley of the Arizona State Sun Devils reacts to an official's call during his team's game against the UNLV Rebels at the Thomas
LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 16: Head coach Bobby Hurley of the Arizona State Sun Devils reacts to an official's call during his team's game against the UNLV Rebels at the Thomas /

For the first time this season, the ASU men’s basketball team failed to score 90 points, amounting just 75 in their victory against San Francisco. It might have been one of the better things to happen to them.

One of the most promising moments of the young season may have just shown up for the Bobby Hurley’s Sun Devil squad.

And it didn’t involve running up the scoreboard.

Coming into their matchup against San Francisco on Saturday night, the Sun Devils ranked third in the nation in scoring offense, tallying 95.7 PPG over their first six victories. With senior guards Tra Holder and Kodi Justice posting career highs in Las Vegas, it was expected that another offensive explosion would be awaiting for the Dons in Tempe.

It certainly didn’t happen that way, but for Coach Hurley, this performance may have been one of the most resilient that he’s seen from his squad all year.

“When you play at this level, you’re not always going to play your cleanest game on offense,” Hurley said. “You have to be able to rely on the energy that you play with on both ends of the floor, and I thought we had the right focus.”

After going on a 31-7 run over a 13:43 span to open up a 21-point-lead in the first half, the hot shooting began to subside for the Sun Devils, as the Dons began to crack down and limit ASU’s early success in the paint.

In his first game off of his 40-point outburst against Xavier, reigning Pac-12 Player of the Week Tra Holder was only able to amount 2 points on 1-6 shooting at the half.

Despite the offensive woes, the defensive numbers for the Sun Devils were staggering; thanks to active rotations from their guards and a hefty wall awaiting at the rim, the Devils kept the Dons scoreless for seven consecutive minutes while forcing them to just 28 percent shooting by halftime.

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“We were playing really fast and speeding them up,” said Hurley. “The open shots they had early in the game were [even] after they had to work through pressure in a possession.”

In the second half, the slow-tempo pace of San Francisco seemed to catch up with the Sun Devils. After recording only five turnovers in the first half, the Devils committed six turnovers in the first eight minutes, as their half-court offense seemed a bit uncomfortable not being able to score consistently.

However, the defense continued to provide a resistance to fold; despite 40 three-point attempts from San Francisco forcing the bigs to chase rebounds, ASU was able to consistently clean up on the glass, winning the rebound battle 22-18 in the second half.

“It was hard,” Romello White noted. “I felt like we did pretty good; we just had to get more stops in a row.”

With the shooting percentages on the night being below-average at 46 percent to 29 percent, the game almost had an identical feel to a game and a spot that the Devils would love to see themselves in: last year’s national championship between Gonzaga and North Carolina.

Although the competition clearly isn’t as highly-regarded as last year’s Zags and the Devils have a long way to go before March, they were able to take a similar approach to North Carolina’s style of play in that game: consistently winning defensive possessions in order to create small pushes on offense.

For an aspiring NCAA-tournament team in ASU, being able to win games in multiple ways is what separates a good team from a great team. So far, ASU has shown that they can do so, either by running up the scoreboard, and now, stringing defensive victories in order to grind out a game with a close lead intact.

If there’s one thing that we’ve learned about the Sun Devils this year, it’s that they’ve improved leaps and bounds on the defensive side of the ball.

After finishing at the bottom of the conference in scoring defense last season, the Devils have shed off nearly five points per game from that total, a huge testament considering tough competition they’ve faced so far in non-conference play.

“If you’re thinking about the right things and winning games, you’re going to push through a sub-par offensive game and find a way to beat your opponent,” Hurley said. “And that’s what we did tonight.”

With tonight’s victory, the Sun Devils improve to 7-0 on the young season, the first time they’ve done so as a program since the 1980-81 season.

Next: ASU Men’s Basketball: Sloppy second half not enough to sink Devils

The Sun Devils will now get set to travel to Los Angeles, where they’ll take on a tough test in St. John’s in their third neutral site test of the season next Friday night. The game will be at 7 p.m MT and can be viewed on Pac-12 Network.