ASU Basketball: Robbi Ryan’s emergence as a defensive leader

TEMPE, AZ - SEPTEMBER 08: Arizona State Sun Devils mascot "Sparky the Sun Devil " performs during the college football game against the Michigan State Spartans at Sun Devil Stadium on September 8, 2018 in Tempe, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
TEMPE, AZ - SEPTEMBER 08: Arizona State Sun Devils mascot "Sparky the Sun Devil " performs during the college football game against the Michigan State Spartans at Sun Devil Stadium on September 8, 2018 in Tempe, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) /

Along with being the team’s leader on defense, the junior guard has taken on a multitude of roles for ASU basketball this season.

Great defense turns into great offense.

This is a mantra many coaches use to motivate their players on the defensive side of the ball. But it always helps when you have a player whose motivation comes naturally.

For Arizona State, that motivation starts with junior guard Robbi Ryan, who has blossomed into the defensive leader of the team in her two-plus years with the program.

“You can always control your defense,” Ryan said. “You can’t always control if your shots go in. For me personally, I put defense first.”

It’s that mindset that has pushed Ryan to be an elite defender.

Work Ethic

Now in her third season with the Sun Devils, Ryan has made improvements not only on her technique, but to how she has studied the game since her freshman season.

“I’m a lot more confident in how I play, Ryan said. “I’m more aware, and having that knowledge of the game really engrains it in your head.”

After spending two years learning to defend against the multitude of college offenses, Ryan has grown accustomed to knowing how to use her body to her advantage.

“She’s ridiculously strong, so if she gets any piece or they try to go through her, they just bounce off,” assistant coach Briann January said. “If she has a great position, there’s no way they’re getting to the rim.”

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And for a player that has suited up in 92 games since her freshman season, her defensive consistency has been a key for the Sun Devils success.

But this season, that nearly changed.

Ryan nearly missed the beginning on the season after having reconstructive surgery on her left ankle in the offseason. But rather than letting it bog her down, Ryan used the injury as motivation to get better in other ways.

“Having to deal with a very serious injury like that has made her think the game over a little more,” head coach Charli Turner Thorne said. “She’s had to prepare more and it’s been great for her.”

The Opposition

Another benefit of Ryan’s growth as a defender has been her performances in big games.

The Sun Devils have played six top-25 opponents, including three top-five matchups, marking one of the most difficult schedules in the nation.

And when playing such a grueling schedule, defending the perimeter becomes less a commodity than a necessity.

The Pac-12 currently has nine guards who have made over 50 threes this season, with all nine shooting over 36 percent from deep. For 5-foot-7 Ryan, it’s her assignment to defend the opposing teams’ lead scorer.

“Once Robbi gets locked in and she’s focused she always rises to the occasion,” January said. “It’s nice having someone on our team that is willing to battle and put her body on the line.”

Ryan uses the combination of her athleticism and knowledge of the game, to harass shooters and keep them off their game on a nightly basis. It’s been that season-long effort that has pushed Ryan into growing both as a player and defender.

Lock Down Defender

But perhaps the toughest test for Ryan occurred early into the regular season. The Sun Devils traveled to Las Vegas on Nov. 23 to square off with No. 5 Louisville in the Southpoint Thanksgiving Shootout.

Ryan was faced with the challenge of defending Cardinals guard Asia Durr, one of the top scoring guards in the nation.

Durr, who was named an AP First Team All-American last season came in averaging 25.7 points per game. But rather than shredding defenses as she’s grown accustomed to, Durr left with only 14 points on 5-for-18 shooting from the field.

The credit went to Ryan, who stayed glued to Durr for the 35 minutes she was on the court.

“She did an unbelievable job on her (Durr),” said Turner Thorne. “Overall it was team defense, but Robbi really did a great job.”

Role Model

And like many of the upperclassmen on the team, Ryan has turned into a role model for the younger players on the team.

“Robbi has a great way about her,” Turner Thorne said. “she’s very empathetic and she constantly reaches out to the freshmen.”

One relationship in particular that has displayed Ryan’s leadership has been her connection with freshmen guard Iris Mbulito.

Mbulito, a native of Spain, joined the Sun Devils in the fall after competing with the Spanish national team during the summer.

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“Iris (Mbulito) will tell you ‘Robbi helps me,’” said Turner Thorne. “Robbi’s just that kind of person. She’s got that servant leader type of personality.”

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