Entering its toughest stretch of the season, ASU basketball will shoulder expectations of their own and an unsteady Pac-12 conference.
Overrated, or underwhelming?
While the Pac-12 clasps to hope of the latter, the nation has responded to the question’s former choice. As the conference has stumbled through the first month of the season, many view it as second-rate to its Power 5 constituents and a non-factor come March.
So, how did we get here?
For starters, the conference’s top dogs (Oregon, UCLA, Washington) have under-performed. Two teams faltered out of the AP Top 25 polls, and so will the 18th-ranked Ducks after losses to Texas Southern and Houston.
Normally the conference’s cream of the crop, Arizona won’t be that team this year. You could say the Wildcats are in the midst of a “bye” season after losing Deandre Ayton and Allonzo Trier to the NBA and having a weakened recruiting class due to an FBI investigation into college basketball.
Yet through the frustration, there has been one constant – Arizona State. The Sun Devils are the league’s final unbeaten team for the second straight season. And while they’ve battled injury woes, ASU has found an identity, something other Pac-12 schools can’t admit.
In seven games, the Sun Devils have established themselves as one of the nation’s premiere rebounding teams. They average 46 per game, creating several opportunities for second chance points and in transition.
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Although they do shoot below 50 percent from the field and 70 percent from the free throw line, ASU compensates for missed shots by averaging nearly 38 points in the paint and 13 from second chances.
It’s a physical style the players love.
“Our defense is great, and I feel our offense helps [it],” said sophomore forward Romello White. “I feel like this team is more defensively and offensively [oriented].”
As the Sun Devils prepare for a stretch against No. 5 Nevada, Georgia, Vanderbilt and No. 2 Kansas, the fate of the Pac-12 lies with them. ASU holds the conference’s top victory against then-ranked Mississippi State on Nov. 19, and their recent history of success in big games adds expectations.
Last year, it was two victories over Xavier and Kansas that set ASU apart. While Arizona came back to win the conference, the Sun Devils’ 12-0 start gave the conference early recognition.
So far this season, the league has crumbled in big games. UCLA lost to Michigan State and North Carolina by a combined 36 points. Washington and Arizona each suffered blowouts to Auburn. And after holding comfortable leads, USC and Stanford fell in close losses to Nevada and Kansas, respectively.
So, to salvage marquee victories, the Sun Devils must come through again. The challenge won’t be easy, as injuries to sophomore guard Remy Martin, junior transfer guard Rob Edwards and junior forward Mickey Mitchell may continue to limit their depth.
Fortunately, others have stepped up. In the last three games, freshman forward Taeshon Cherry has found a rhythm. After being hindered by a knee injury in the offseason, he’s found his stroke by averaging 16 points on 62 percent shooting in the span.
White also had some offensive struggles, but a 19-point, 14-rebound performance against Texas Southern on Saturday showed he can be a reliable low-post option when called upon.
While the challenge won’t be easy, senior forward Zylan Cheatham is ready to see what his team has made of.
“I know what everyone’s capable of,” he said. “I knew we were going to have bodies to step up regardless of who we were going to have on the floor. We put five guys out there, we’re going to have a chance, especially with Bobby Hurley coaching us.”
Like a year ago, the Sun Devils will be tasked with leading the charge in the Pac-12. We’ll see if it’ll save them in a conference that isn’t positioned well for the NCAA Tournament.
All quotes in this article were obtained firsthand by Devils in Detail unless otherwise noted.