ASU Basketball: Washington State, not Washington, is this week’s most important game

Washington is ASU basketball’s best opponent remaining, but Thursday’s clash with Washington State could have a greater impact on NCAA Tournament hopes.

Let’s face it – there is one compelling matchup for Arizona State’s penultimate homestand of the Pac-12 season, and it will be this Saturday, against Washington.

Up to this point, the Huskies (18-4, 9-0 Pac-12) have been the conference’s best team. They are the highest-ranked Pac-12 school in the NCAA’s NET Rankings (No. 27), and if ASU were to beat them, it would add a fourth Quadrant 1 victory to its resume, two more than any other team in the league.

But as significant as the Washington game is, it won’t be the most important. That would be Thursday’s game, versus 8-14 Washington State.

Now, there are plenty reasons that suggestion doesn’t make sense. For one, the Cougars are No. 231 in the NET Rankings, exceeding only California (267) in the Pac-12. As a Quadrant IV opponent, a win would do little to nothing for ASU’s resume.

Outside of Robert Franks, who leads the conference at 21.4 points per game, and freshman CJ Elleby, WSU lacks consistent pieces. On top of that, the Cougars have yet to win a road game, losing all seven of its contests away from home and five during Pac-12 play.

So, knowing this, why must the Sun Devils be wary of this matchup? Exactly because of what kind of loss this could be.

ASU experienced defeat against a Quadrant IV foe on Dec. 29, a 67-66 home loss to Princeton. Even after their win over top-ranked Kansas, the Sun Devils fell from 17th to out of the AP Top 25 and back to No. 45 in the NET Rankings.

The loss also keyed three defeats in five contests, a funk recently broke by four wins in the last five. Even so, it negated the strength of three previous Quadrant 1 wins.

At today’s media availability, coach Bobby Hurley addressed areas of improvement in the final nine games, specifically defending the perimeter. In conference play, ASU is allowing opponents to shoot 37 percent from 3-point range, tying California at eighth in the league.

While Washington State allows opponents to shoot 54 percent from the field, it does score in bunches. The Cougars average nine made 3-pointers on 24 attempts per game, forcing quick rotations and constant awareness from defenders.

“We lost too many shooters, and some of our ball screen coverages allowed them (Arizona) to get open looks,” Hurley said. “We got to play better defense behind the 3-point line, and Washington State will test every bit of that, so we’ve been focusing on defending the 3-point line this week.”

Last season, ASU defeated the Cougars in Pullman, 88-78. While the Sun Devils capitalized offensively with 64 combined points from Tra Holder, Shannon Evans and Romello White, they did have trouble building a lead. Franks, Malachi Flynn and Carter Skaggs connected 11 shots from 3-point range to keep WSU within single digits until the closing minutes.

On Thursday, the Cougars possess a similar threat, and the Sun Devils can’t afford to lose focus. Already near the bubble, (No. 10 seed in ESPN’s recent bracket) a bad loss here could pop ASU’s NCAA Tournament hopes entirely.

The Sun Devils can compete at a high level, evident in their three Quadrant 1 victories and likely a close contest with Washington this weekend. But in order to beam its successes, the team must take care of ‘trap’ games like these, which could negate its chances of reaching its full potential.

“We got to make sure when we are up in the game, (to not) give them any confidence and let them back in the game,” said sophomore guard Remy Martin. “That’s one of the keys that I think we’re going to need going into the game.”

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