One week after upsetting top-ranked Kansas, ASU basketball proved it is far from a refined product in a home loss to Princeton.
I’ll be honest. This isn’t the story I expected to write.
Around this time yesterday, I was preparing to give you – the reader – a different argument. Fully expecting Arizona State to waltz through Princeton – a Quadrant 4 opponent with five losses, including a 51-point drubbing courtesy of top-ranked Duke – I was ready to explain why the Sun Devils were disrespected in a presumable 10-2 start to the season.
But as the old saying goes, that’s why you play the games.
The 67-66 loss was ASU’s third in five games. Yes, that’s the reality – even with the Sun Devils defeating No. 1 Kansas a week ago.
It also came on a day where the Pac-12 didn’t do itself any favors. Washington State and UCLA suffered home losses to Santa Clara and Liberty, two mid-majors with a combined record of 19-10.
So, after this shocking defeat, the discussion will go a different route. Not praise for the team’s defense or resilience in close affairs, but instead questions about its offensive progress and connectedness as a unit.
Let’s start with the most puzzling query – what has happened to Luguentz Dort?
A Freshman Slump
Standing at 6-feet-4 inches tall with a chiseled 215-pound frame, it’s difficult to realize Dort is a freshman.
But for as physically gifted as he is, these last four games have served as a reminder for his youth.
A 1-of-8 shooting performance Saturday added to a 9-of-45 (20 percent) drought over the last two weeks, a development which has stumbled ASU’s success in the halfcourt.
The Sun Devils average nearly 80 points, but in the 2-2 stretch, they’ve averaged 72 on 44 percent shooting. Coincidentally, the four percentages (44.4, 44.2, 43.9, 44) have been ASU’s lowest of the season.
More from Devils in Detail
- Sun Devils Primer: Game 2 vs Oklahoma State
- Sun Devil Insight: Quarterback Room
- Arizona State Spotlight: Kenny Dillingham
- Arizona State 2023 Season Opener: Off To A Good Start
- Arizona State vs USC Prediction and Promo (Expect Offensive Fireworks)
Dort’s performances have influenced that trend. In recent games, his pursuit of the paint has been negated, as the opponents’ focus on help-side defense and post touches has forced him into committing offensive fouls, traveling violations and missed layups.
Yesterday, the mistakes played a factor. For the ninth time this season, he committed three or more personal fouls. And on the game’s final play, he missed an open put-back off a 3-point attempt from Remy Martin, failing to salvage the crushing defeat.
Dort’s brawn is a large reason why NBA scouts salivate at his potential. But it’s also a part of his learning process. Through film study and experience, he must grow smarter in his attacks come Pac-12 play.
Remember – this is a player who broke ASU’s freshman scoring record (28) in the season opener against Cal State Fullerton. He’s had outings of 33 and 24 points in neutral site contests against Utah State and Nevada. The talent is there.
Now, it’s a matter of coach Bobby Hurley helping him mature. And that all starts with the lineup he puts around him.
Figuring Out Talent
We all know this year’s ASU team is different. They’re big. They’re talented. And they have a lot of ways to beat you.
We’ve seen that depth pay dividends. Last week, Rob Edwards was the fourth different Sun Devil in five weeks to earn Pac-12 Player of the Week honors. Of ASU’s eight main rotation players, each has scored in double-figures at least once.
But we’ve also seen its erraticism. Yesterday afternoon, Martin and Romello White combined for 37 points on 14-of-27 shooting, but fellow former honorees Edwards, Dort and Zylan Cheatham accumulated 21 points on a 5-of-26 clip.
Following the game, Cheatham mentioned issues behind the team’s spacing. With plenty pieces capable of scoring, it can be challenging to spread them apart – especially with Martin and Edwards missing time with injury.
In the non-conference, Hurley has pieced several lineups, some by choice with others being influenced by foul trouble. While White and De’Quon Lake are interchangeable, there’s been plenty parody between who’s on the floor.
The Kansas win is a product of that talent, but yesterday’s loss is a sign the chemistry is undeveloped. In both games, the Sun Devils had four players each that finished with a negative +/-, indicating some of the discomfort.
It can be difficult to integrate returning faces. Last season, the arrivals of Lawrence and Mickey Mitchell added depth but created moving pieces Hurley couldn’t seem to assemble, as the Sun Devils stumbled to an 8-10 conference record following a 12-0 start.
This season, re-integrating Edwards and Martin has created similar issues. Once 7-0, a 2-3 stretch has brought the Sun Devils down with the rest of the Pac-12. And that’s not a good sign with conference play approaching.
As undeveloped as the chemistry is, it may pale in comparison to another matter.
Reliance on the Second Half
The stigma of a ‘second half team’ is what ASU has been under Hurley. The Sun Devils have pioneered 17 victories while trailing at the break during his four-year tenure, including a 14-point comeback at Georgia on Dec. 15 and an eight-point recovery against the Jayhawks last Saturday.
But lately, a dependence on the final 20 minutes has created failed redemption.
After leading at halftime in each of their first eight contests, the Sun Devils have trailed in each of their last four. They’ve shot a combined 40-of-130 (31 percent) in those periods while converting only 8-of-38 (21 percent) of their attempts beyond the 3-point line.
Granted, the defense has picked up the slack, holding opponents to 53-of-121 (44 percent) from the field. This has paved the way for second periods where ASU averaged 41 points and 43 percent shooting, completing two comebacks over seven points.
But like last season, falling into that trap can generate defeats behind the attribution of ‘too little, too late.’ Even when Princeton shot 8-of-29 (35 percent) in the second half yesterday, shots like the heave from Sebastian Much to beat the shot clock will trump poor offensive execution.
There’s nothing wrong with being better in the second half. That’s even preferred. It displays the effectiveness of a team to make adjustments and triumph in adverse situations.
But that doesn’t mean the first half can go to waste. Even if ASU’s performance improves slightly, that’ll pay dividends for bigger second half runs and a more comfortable position to close games.
Now moving to Pac-12 play, the Sun Devils need a better league performance to move away from the bubble in March. An 8-10 record won’t save them.
The journey begins Thursday (Jan. 3) – a home matchup against Utah. The game will be at 6 p.m. and can be viewed via Pac-12 Networks.