ASU Basketball: Pac-12 troubles adding “more pressure” to NCAA Tournament hopes

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - NOVEMBER 19: Zylan Cheatham #45 of the Arizona State Sun Devils shoots against Reggie Perry #1 of the Mississippi State Bulldogs during the first half of a semifinal game of the MGM Resorts Main Event basketball tournament at T-Mobile Arena on November 19, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - NOVEMBER 19: Zylan Cheatham #45 of the Arizona State Sun Devils shoots against Reggie Perry #1 of the Mississippi State Bulldogs during the first half of a semifinal game of the MGM Resorts Main Event basketball tournament at T-Mobile Arena on November 19, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images) /

Two losses in its first four Pac-12 contests has ASU basketball’s back against the wall entering a homestand against Oregon State and Oregon.

Normally pacing the 28-foot coaches’ sideline with assorted expressions of intensity and amusement, Bobby Hurley entered the Wells Fargo Arena media room Tuesday in rare sorrow.

As the fourth-year coach settled behind the podium, the space began to spread his dejection. He was asked first if his team – who topped the Pac-12’s non-conference hierarchy for the second straight season – felt like they should be 2-2 through the league’s first two weekends. Hurley answered faintly, echoing a tone that seemed to relive all-too-familiar frustrations.

“You would hope, based on just how the schedule played out, I thought we’d be better,” he said.

From there, a reporter moved to the future – Thursday’s contest with Oregon State, specifically – questioning what needed to change for success. Hurley answered with more fixation on the past.

“We just have to pinpoint an area that I can lock in on that we can get better at,” he said. “Some nights, it’s been shot selection, at Stanford it was turnovers and free throw shooting, against Utah it was transition defense. Princeton was [our] shooting percentage and a lot of missed layups.

“We’ve just got to try and be a little more consistent.”

Since ASU defeated top-ranked Kansas on Dec. 22, consistency has been illusory. The Sun Devils have lost three of their last five games, struggling to keep afloat in a conference which nearly shipwrecked its NCAA Tournament berth a season ago.

The latest speedbump – a 14-point road loss to Stanford – dashed the latest sliver of hope. Seven days after its 22-point rout of Colorado, which Romello White attributed to being “together” for the first time, ASU reverted to self-reliance, posting its lowest field goal percentage (41.2), and assist total (9) since the can of worms opened in the post-holiday defeat to Princeton.

The loss dropped ASU to 83rd in the crucial NCAA NET Rankings, therefore eliminating the team’s status as a Quadrant 1 (top-tier) opponent. The Sun Devils now sit behind Pac-12 rivals Washington (38), Arizona (50), Oregon State (69) and Oregon (77)  just three weeks after standing as the outlier.

With each opponent on the radar in the next seven contests, Hurley knows the margin for error is slim, perhaps more than he thought it would ever be.

“This isn’t the Big 12 or the Big Ten or the ACC, where you can be 2-2 and you still feel like, ‘Hey, there’s a lot of season left and we can be positive,’” he said. “Not this year with the way things played out in our league and our winning percentage in the non-conference was so slow. It puts more pressure on you to have a really good conference regular season. So far we’re behind in that regard, and we have to do better.”

Here are some other notes that stood out from Tuesday’s availability session.

Not Having a Set Starting Lineup

On Saturday, Hurley opted for a new starting five, enacting a three-guard set with Remy Martin, Rob Edwards and Luguentz Dort alongside the usual frontcourt duo of White and Zylan Cheatham.

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The move marked ASU’s fifth different lineup of the season and its third in the past three games. It was also the first without sophomore forward Kimani Lawrence, who has averaged just 6.8 points since the loss to Nevada on Dec. 7.

While Martin cured a 3-of-18 start from the field and a 14-point deficit in Wednesday’s win over California, his presence couldn’t mask the difficulties in Palo Alto. ASU made just one of its first 11 shots, falling in an early eight-point deficit before second half spurts of 12-0 and and 17-5 iced the Cardinal’s first Pac-12 victory.

“The one time I emphasized (the starting lineup) was more just for Remy (Martin) and Lu (Dort) to learn something,” Hurley said. “After that, I think that we will be able to lock in on a group and hopefully everyone will get comfortable in a role.”

Hurley said he wasn’t set on a starting lineup for tonight’s contest against Oregon State, waiting to see which players emerged in practice.

At this point, much of the indecision can be attributed to availability. Martin and Edwards each missed time during the team’s 7-0 start, bringing players like Taeshon Cherry and De’Quon Lake into bigger roles for extended periods.

With eight players reaching double-digit point totals at least once, ASU has at times struggled to balance who will ‘get theirs.’ The losses, Hurley feels, will be the key to achieving team success.

“I think we’ve got a lot of competitors in our locker room and I don’t think they liked how they felt after that game, bad taste in their mouth,” he said. “The response has been generally pretty good in practice. We did a lot of talking as well as watching the film, met with a lot of the players, talked about what it takes to do this on a consistent basis and to be a team that is more dependable.”

Finding a Consistent Identity

Long, athletic and talented, ASU didn’t have issues imposing itself in the season’s first two months. The Sun Devils ranked in the top-five in total rebounds and rebounding margin by early December, executing a defensive-oriented approach that limited opposing spacing and energized transition scores.

But since the Princeton loss, that hasn’t been the case. ASU’s last five opponents have shot 37 percent from 3-point range while averaging 75 points per game. In those contests, the once-wide rebounding margin has shrunk to +2.6, forcing more halfcourt possessions and struggles from the field.

According to Cheatham, the team’s struggles have been “out of character.” To break the slump, he felt successes, not mistakes, have to be the the main focus.

“When we play well and we play the right way, we see the kind of results we can get and how we can look as a team,” Cheatham said. “That’s the biggest thing we’re focusing on right now, just identifying our identity and sticking with it. Not changing it game-in an game-out, just trying to stay consistent with the foundation of what we practice.”

Moving forward ASU will need a concerted effort to get stops and run the floor. Oregon State is known to play slow, methodical contests and will try to keep the Sun Devils trapped in a 2-3 zone, while Oregon and Payton Pritchard will enact a fast-paced approach.

Whether it being switching it defensive looks or inserting Lawrence back in the lineup, ASU must find a way to share the ball, similar to their season high of 24 assists in the Colorado victory. Without chemistry, the struggles will ensue.

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The Sun Devils and Beavers will tip off from Wells Fargo Arena tonight at 8 p.m. The game can be viewed live via FS1.

All quotes in this article were obtained firsthand by Devils in Detail unless otherwise noted.