ASU Basketball: Why do the Sun Devils beat better teams, lose to inferiors?

TEMPE, AZ - JANUARY 11: Head coach Bobby Hurley of the Arizona State Sun Devils gestures during the first half of the college basketball game against the Oregon Ducks at Wells Fargo Arena on January 11, 2018 in Tempe, Arizona. (Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)
TEMPE, AZ - JANUARY 11: Head coach Bobby Hurley of the Arizona State Sun Devils gestures during the first half of the college basketball game against the Oregon Ducks at Wells Fargo Arena on January 11, 2018 in Tempe, Arizona. (Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images) /

ASU basketball split its series with the Washington schools, edging the first-place Huskies after being routed by the 11th-place Cougars. Of course.

For those not familiar with this year’s Arizona State basketball team, last night was irregular. Just two days after getting trounced by Washington State – an opponent that hadn’t won a road game in seven attempts – the Sun Devils outclassed Washington – the Pac-12’s final unbeaten in league play – to salvage a split in their latest homestand.

But for the crowd who has followed this team’s treads and reversals, the victory was almost anticipated. By reasons coach Bobby Hurley may not even be able to explain, ASU will struggle with inferior competition, but when top opponents report, the Sun Devils always seem to answer the bell.

The question is, why?

Entering Saturday’s contest, the Huskies were far and wide the conference’s best team. They had won 12 straight, including their 10 league games, while holding opponents to 60.4 points per game on 40 percent shooting. With four returning seniors and a second year under coach Mike Hopkins, its rigid 2-3 zone and pace were at a new level.

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Yet for some odd reason, the Sun Devils cracked the guard nobody else could. ASU scored 75 points and shot 61.7 percent from the floor – its best offensive conference outing since Feb. 2, 2013 at Washington – despite playing into UW’s trap of 24 turnovers. This came after Friday’s intense practice, where Hurley didn’t allow his team to take any shots.

“Every drill that we did ended in a pass and then no shot,” he said. “Some of it was childish, on my part. I think [I] was a little bit frustrated with our inability to make shots on Thursday night. [The players and I] had some back-and-forth in practice, so that was that.”

Like its coach’s intense instruction, ASU’s triumph was familiar. Saturday’s victory gave the Sun Devils their fourth Quadrant 1 win of the season, two more than any other Pac-12 school. In perspective, ASU is one of only 22 teams in Division 1 with four or more Q1 victories on their NCAA Tournament resumes.

However, at No. 72 in the NCAA’s NET Rankings, the Sun Devils are also one of three teams in the top-100 with two or more Quadrant 4 losses. That has them ‘on the bubble’ for postseason hopes, barely qualifying for the First Four in Joe Lunardi’s latest bracket projection for ESPN.

The contrast is one both puzzling and familiar. Since last season, ASU has picked up victories against teams ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the AP Top 25 (Kansas) with a slew of notable triumphs (No. 15 Xavier, No. 15 Mississippi State, Kansas State). Then, contests commonly viewed as ‘trap games’ have ingested the Sun Devils, often without resistance.

In this year’s home losses (Washington State, Princeton, Utah) there have been plenty of reasons why. Yes, the Sun Devils couldn’t buy a bucket in these games, from the field (37.4 percent) or the free throw line (64.2 percent), but the fire seen against top-ranked opponents wasn’t close to being lit.

And while effort has been a major concern, it wasn’t the be-all end-all. More so, it was focus.

Statistics won’t record this, but plenty of times, the Sun Devils would gamble on defensive rotations, leaving shooters and passing lanes open for teams to penetrate. Caught out of position, ASU’s favorable control of the glass would subside, contributing to poor offensive possessions and less second chances.

The inconsistency has been evident, and for the players, the games that got away are ones they often think about.

“We’ve showed flashes of [a] Final Four, Elite Eight-type team, and we’ve showed flashes of a potential NIT team,” said senior forward Zylan Cheatham. “You can’t help but think about the games that you gave up.

“[But] the way this business works, it’s another day. We’re going to enjoy this and be happy about it, but when we wake up, it’s another day, we got another opponent coming up, and that’s the approach you got to come in every week with.”

Though this team is unpredictable, Cheatham is correct. The Sun Devils have proven they can do damage, evident in their Q1 wins and performance against No. 6 Nevada in December.

At 7-4 in the Pac-12, trailing first-placed Washington by three games, a league title may not be in reach. But if ASU can secure a first round bye in the conference tournament, they might be able to make a run at a championship in Las Vegas.

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Truth be told, last night did not tell us if this team has cracked its code. The win, however, is promising, and it’s a sign of what this team can accomplish if locked in.

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