Arizona State’s undefeated men’s basketball team is revisiting the past this weekend. Guard Tra Holder, a Los Angeles, Calif. native, is going back to his hometown to square-up against St. John’s (8-1) Friday and for the first time he’ll play in Staples Center.
When the Devils play Kansas on Sunday, it will be the inaugural appearance at Allen Fieldhouse for most of ASU’s team as well as its head coach. But, Bobby Hurley has played Kansas before – only it was on a much bigger stage. Hurley won his first of two National Championships as a player after beating Kansas in the 1991 title game.
And lastly for the Devils blast to the past, while it’s been three years since ASU has made the NCAA Tournament, with the Friday-Sunday matchups that the Devils have coming up against a middle-tier team then against the current No. 2 team in the country, Hurley is trying to bring the tournament mentality to his team.
“We’re looking at this like a NCAA Tournament situation,” Hurley said. “Playing a team like St. John’s that has the talent and the defensive mindset to be a NCAA Tournament team. And if you would be fortunate enough to advance in that game then you’re looking at an opponent like Kansas who always has something to say about who advances in the tournament.”
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And in tournament fashion, Hurley and the Devils are keeping their focus on playing St. John’s in the Basketball Hall of Fame Classic Friday.
“We’ve been focusing primarily on St. John’s,” Hurley said. “That’s the next game in front of us.”
Like ASU, the Red Storm are led by their guards. Their top four scorers all play in the backcourt. And at the helm of St. John’s offensive gameplan is Shamorie Ponds.
Ponds is averaging 20.2 points per game, over five more then his closest teammate, 6.3 rebounds and 4.9 assists – and when the Devils get done playing him they will have to face another star guard with Kansas’ Devonte’ Graham, two guys Hurley has high-praise for.
“We’ve been talking a lot about those guys, they’re two of the better point guards in the United States,” Hurley said. “And we feel like we have some guys here that should be in that conversation, so I’m sure our players are motivated to play.
With a knee sprain injury to Marcus LoVett, St. John’s second leading scorer, Ponds has taken over scoring 22 and 28 against Sacred Heart and Grand Canyon, respectively. LoVett has been ruled out for Friday’s game.
For the Devils, their game Sunday against Kansas will most likely be their biggest test of the season, but in terms of conflicting styles, the Jayhawks can’t match what St. John’s will bring to ASU.
It’s clear ASU has a much more effective and prosperous offense. Behind guards Holder, Shannon Evans II and Kodi Justice, ASU has a ‘pick your poison’ attack that allows any one of them to go off on any given night.
As a result, the Devils scored 90 or more points in their first six games and their 92.7 points per game rank fourth in the country. St. John’s, on the other hand, ranks 185th (75.0 PPG).
The Red Storm aren’t going to put up huge offensive numbers, but not matter, their defense more than makes up for their relative lack of scoring. St. John’s lets up a measly 60 points (7th in the country), on average, to its opponents per game – 13.6 fewer then ASU (73.6 ppg, 211th in the country).
“I’m very impressed with the effort and intensity they have on defense,” Hurley said. “It’s certainly one of the best defensive team I’ve watched play this year.”
Holder added praise about the St. John’s defense: “I know they’re a very good shot-blocking team. So, we’ve got to be smart when we drive to the basket, but if we play to our strengths and move the ball and shoot open 3’s, we’ll be fine.”
The conflicting styles, just in terms of point differentials on both ends, seems to favor the Devils, and ASU has already shown it can put up points against a highly-touted defense.
Earlier in the season when the Devils traveled to Sin City to play in the Las Vegas Invitational, they faced a Kansas State team who is currently ranked 13th in scoring defense at 61.1 PPG and put up 92 points in a two point win.
For an Arizona State team with real tournament aspirations, the Devils need to start showing defensive improvement – and facing a team that scores only 75 points a game might be the time to do it.
All quotes in this article were obtained firsthand by Devils in Detail unless otherwise noted.