ASU Basketball: Hurley “pleased” with team’s standing at Pac-12 midway point

TEMPE, ARIZONA - JANUARY 31: Head coach Bobby Hurley of the Arizona State Sun Devils gestures at official Michael Reed during the first half of the college basketball game against the Arizona Wildcats at Wells Fargo Arena on January 31, 2019 in Tempe, Arizona. (Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)
TEMPE, ARIZONA - JANUARY 31: Head coach Bobby Hurley of the Arizona State Sun Devils gestures at official Michael Reed during the first half of the college basketball game against the Arizona Wildcats at Wells Fargo Arena on January 31, 2019 in Tempe, Arizona. (Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images) /

Coach Bobby Hurley applauded ASU basketball’s ability to “embrace changes” for improvement ahead of its matchups with the Washington schools.

Fresh off his first win against Arizona, Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley was optimistic about his group’s latest performances in Pac-12 play.

“I feel good about how we’re playing right now (and) the last couple of weeks,” he said. “(But) everything can change in a second if you don’t keep focusing on getting better.”

Through nine conference games, ASU (15-6, 6-3 Pac-12) is tied with USC and Oregon State for second in the league standings. The Sun Devils have won four of their last five contests after losing five of nine and splitting the first four games of conference action.

This week, ASU will host the Washington schools, headlined by Saturday’s matchup with Washington. Winners of 10 straight, the Huskies (18-4, 9-0 Pac-12) have created a sizeable gap at the top of the conference, with only two of their league wins being decided by less than double digits.

On Tuesday, Hurley confirmed the Sun Devils are preparing without freshman forward Taeshon Cherry, who re-aggravated concussion symptoms in Thursday’s win against the Wildcats. Cherry initially suffered the injury in the first half of ASU’s 84-73 victory at UCLA on Jan. 24.

“He is now in a more extended concussion protocol,” Hurley said. “He’ll miss this week, at a minimum, and then we’ll re-evaluate early next week.”

The fourth-year coach mentioned freshman Elias Valtonen and sophomore Vitaliy Shibel as candidates to fill in for Cherry’s absence. Both did not play last week against Arizona.

While Hurley offered praise, he did mention areas of improvement for the back half of the conference season, one being 3-point defense. ASU is currently tied for eighth in the league by allowing opponents to shoot 37 percent from beyond the arc.

Against a team like Washington State, who averages nine made 3-pointers on 24 attempts per game, the Sun Devils know they must actively communicate on the defensive end.

“They (Washington State) can really score it,” Hurley said. “When they get in a rhythm on offense, they’re a dangerous team.”

“(We have to) make sure we guard the line and focus on details,” added sophomore guard Remy Martin. “We got to make sure than when we are up in the game, (we) don’t give them any confidence and let them back into the game.”

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

Disrespect to the Pac-12

Despite a perfect conference record, Washington was still dismissed from this week’s AP Top 25, receiving the most votes outside the poll with 135.

Hurley was asked his opinion about the Huskies’ rejection, and he believed UW was slighted.

“I think it’s the whole narrative that the league isn’t any good, and everyone’s been saying it,” he said. “It just spreads like wildfire to everywhere.”

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As it stands, the Huskies are a projected No. 8 seed in cumulative NCAA Tournament brackets, according to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has UW as a No. 8 seed in the West region while CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm has them as a No. 7 seed in the same district.

While the Huskies may not be ranked, they do qualify as a Quadrant 1 opponent. They are No. 27 in the NCAA NET Rankings, which is the highest of any school in the Pac-12. The Sun Devils are second at No. 60.

If ASU were to win Saturday’s contest, it would give them a fourth Q1 win, which would be two more than any other team in the conference. That makes this game crucial, regardless of what AP voters may think.

Washington’s 2-3 Zone

Nobody ran a 2-3 zone defense like Jim Boeheim and Syracuse. That is, until Mike Hopkins brought the concept to the Pacific Northwest.

This season, Washington has held opponents to a conference-best 60.9 points per game on 41.5 percent shooting. With reigning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Matisse Thybulle patrolling the perimeter, the Huskies force nearly 17 turnovers, seven steals and two blocks per game.

Arizona State got a taste of UW’s length last season, when it lost 68-64 in Seattle. There, the Sun Devils shot 44 percent from the field, but couldn’t overcome 15 turnovers that led to 16 extra points for the Huskies.

ASU will have a different makeup for this matchup, giving it a mix of new threats and a loss of old advantages.

“We’re not as reliant on the 3-point shot,” Hurley said. “When we get it in the high post, we can kick it out, but we can also attack. We have the presence around the basket that we may not have always had last year. So that’s a big advantage for us.”

Another factor to last year’s defeat was rebounding. Washington held a +5 advantage over ASU on the glass, often limiting extra possessions against the zone.

With the addition of Zylan Cheatham, who leads the Pac-12 at 10.9 rebounds per game, the Sun Devils are likely better equipped to create second chances and beat the zone with transition opportunities.

Finding a Team Rhythm

Luguentz Dort is still ASU’s top scorer (16 points per game), but he hasn’t been as dominant since the non-conference stretch. In nine league games, the 6-foot-4 freshman is averaging 13.1 points on 40.6 percent from the field and 19.6 percent from the 3-point line.

At 215 pounds, Dort’s brawn once overwhelmed weaker opponents. But against bigger athletes, he has struggled, most notably in a 2-of-13 shooting performance in a loss to USC on Jan. 26.

On Thursday, Dort showed progress by recording a season-high six assists against the Wildcats. It opened up other parts of his game, as he added 15 points and four rebounds despite fouling out in overtime.

“He’s going to grow and develop and make strides in decision making,” Hurley said. “I think our team, collectively, is moving the ball pretty well, so it’s contagious amongst the group. We’re happy with Lu right now.”

Once caught searching for his shot, junior guard Rob Edwards has also found a flow. Against Arizona, he finished with a season-high 19 points with only nine shots, showing comfort in transition and working through offensive sets.

“Rob is tricky to read, because he (has) a very blank expression, and you don’t know what’s going on,” Hurley said. “So I’m always asking him, ‘Hey, are you good? Are you alright? Are you in this with me?’

“He really controls his emotions. And he’s got a fire about him, it’s just you can’t tell. That probably just contributes to how comfortable he is as an offensive player, and he’s getting in a rhythm.”

As a point guard, Martin has come into his own as a distributor and scorer. He has set career highs in both categories this season, and going forward, he feels his team is closer to finding the stride it has been looking for.

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“We know our identity,” Martin said. “We know what we’re capable of. Whoever is out there on the court, we’re just going to work as hard as we can and get the best of us.”

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