Three Games Into PAC-12 Play: Adjustments To Make Down The Stretch
By Andrew Bell and TJ Mathewson // Men’s Basketball Beat Writers for Blaze Sports
TEMPE, Ariz. — Conference play has given a bit of a reality check to ASU.
The Sun Devils were flying high headed into PAC-12 play, riding wins over Xavier and Kansas to an undefeated record and their best start in program history.
ASU was ranked as high as No. 3 in the AP Poll, tying their highest ranking in the poll ever.
Close losses to Arizona and Colorado and a close win at Utah in their first three conference games leave the Devils with a 1-2 conference record and a 13-2 record overall.
Here is what Andrew and TJ saw in ASU’s first three conference games and what they might need to adjust down the stretch of PAC-12 play.
DESPITE HAVING IMPROVED FRONT-COURT DEPTH, ASU IS STILL GOING TO STRUGGLE WITH SIZE
After going through all of non-conference play without seeing a really dominant, skilled big man, ASU ran into two in their first three conference games in Deandre Ayton (Arizona) and David Collette (Utah).
Let’s start with Ayton.
The man is favored to be the #1 overall pick, and is an athletic freak at 7-foot-1-inch with incredible hops and an outside jumper. Many teams are going to struggle with Ayton over the course of the season and probably his NBA career too. The ASU bigs had absolutely no chance against Ayton, allowing him to go off for 23 points and 19 rebounds on 9 of 14 shooting, causing freshman forward Romello White to foul out after scoring just two points in just 18 minutes.
Collette wasn’t quite as dominant as Ayton, and that expected, but he was still very effective for the Utes, scoring 16 points on 6 of 6 shooting. The presence of him and Tyler Rawson inside were a big reason why ASU’s bigs has so much foul trouble and constantly kept the pressure on the guards. With more talented big men upcoming in the PAC-12 schedule, such as Reid Travis (Stanford), Chimezie Metu (USC), Thomas Welsh (UCLA), and Ayton and Collette again, ASU is going to need is going to have to change something defensively to offset the difference in size.
IN CONFERENCE PLAY, MICKEY MITCHELL WILL BE THE SECOND MOST IMPORTANT SUN DEVIL BEHIND TRA HOLDER
Yes I know that he’s only played in seven games total and that he’s not exactly lighting up the stat sheet (7.1 PPG/6.9 RPG). But when he’s on the court, he is an absolute difference-maker for the Sun Devils.
I’m not saying the contributions of Shannon Evans (16.9 PPG), Romello White (12.3 PPG/ 8.2 RPG), Kodi Justice (13.7 PPG) and Remy Martin (10.3 PPG) aren’t important, because all of them are extremely important.
But none of them can bring what Mitchell brings to the table.
Mitchell adds that fourth ball-handler to the ASU lineup without having to run with four guards and be undersized. He has great court vision and is able to guard multiple positions. He isn’t afraid to go up and fight for a rebound with someone who had a height advantage on him and most of the time, he will come down with the rebound. His BPM (Box Plus-Minus) is the third-highest on the team behind DeQuon Lake and Tra Holder.
Remember, Mitchell has only played in seven games total since the 2015-16 season when he was a rookie at Ohio State, so he still has more time to grow with his style of play. Many ASU fans hope that is what Kimani Lawrence turns into once he gets comfortable on the court, but until then, that’s the roll that Mitchell will fill.
ATTACKING ZONE DEFENSES IS GOING TO BE A KEY FOR THE SUN DEVILS
Early in the season, ASU was able to break down zone defenses with ease.
The Sun Devils lethal perimeter shooting helped them earn wins over the nation’s top teams, including No. 10 Xavier, No. 12 Kansas, St. John’s and Kansas State. The ability to stretch the floor with three-point shooting aided the Sun Devils in breaking down defenses when they went with a zone look. Opposing defenses were stretched out by ASU’s ability to shoot the long ball, and that led to easy baskets from the high post. ASU was able to facilitate and slash into the teeth of zone defenses, generating high-low dunks and wide open three-point attempts. Other team’s that delved into a zone did not phase ASU.
In conference play, the Sun Devils are shooting 30 percent from beyond the arc. While ASU has generated some open shot attempts out of a zone look, the team was shooting the ball at a much higher marker in non-conference play.
Over the weekend against Colorado and Utah, both teams were in a zone defense that hindered the Sun Devils at times. Utah played an extended 2-3 zone that forced ASU to shoot deep three-pointers, and while the guards did knock down a couple of deep looks, the recipe while playing on the road at elevation was not quite ideal.
Earlier this week, ASU head coach Bobby Hurley noted some of the struggles that his team had against the Rocky Mountain schools, and how his team has been working on the area this week in practice.
“I thought that I didn’t do as great a job against Colorado of getting more movement into our offense against their zone,” he said. “We did some things in practice leading into Utah that helped get some more movement…our offense functioned better, so we can’t just stand and move the ball around with no movement against a zone defense.”
ASU continued its pursuit of working against zone defenses in practice this week, and it is likely that the Sun Devils will face a zone against the Oregon schools this weekend.
TRUST THE PROCESS WITH KIMANI LAWRENCE
After not playing against Arizona, ASU freshman forward Kimani Lawrence made his season debut at Colorado. Lawrence picked up two fouls early in the first half, and he was forced to sit for a large part of the game. Lawrence finished the game against the Buffs with just one point.
At Utah, Lawrence finished with three points, but he played valuable minutes down the stretch of the game in the second half. Hurley does not want to rush Lawrence back onto the floor, but similar to the return of Mickey Mitchell after sitting out, Lawrence might need to dust off some of the cobwebs from a foot injury that left him out of non-conference play.
There is a reason that Lawrence is the highest-touted recruit since James Harden.
His versatility and length can impact games. By March, don’t be surprised to see Lawrence as one of the top players in the ASU lineup.
Overall, a 1-2 record in Pac-12 play is not the end of the world for ASU. At this time last year, ASU had already sustained seven losses en route to a 15-18 season. The Sun Devils are still averaging just under 90 points a game and they sit high among the ranks of the elite at No. 11 in the nation.
Arguably the toughest part of ASU’s conference schedule is over after three straight road games in hostile environments, and the Sun Devils will have nine out their next 15 games at Wells Fargo Arena, a place where they have not lost this season. While a 1-2 record in Pac-12 play might not be ideal, ASU still has ventured into unchartered waters in Hurley’s third season in Tempe.
“We are learning to play as a highly ranked team knowing that our opponents are going to give us their best shot,” Hurley said. “We were court stormed (at Colorado). There are a lot of new things happening here that have not happened at Arizona State.”
Tipoff between No. 11 ASU and Oregon is slated for Thursday, Jan. 11 at 8 p.m MST and the game can be heard on Blaze Radio Online Mixlr with Zach Pekale and Killian McClatchey on the call.
TJ Mathewson and Andrew Bell are the beat writers for Blaze Sports covering ASU Men’s Basketball. You can reach out to them at email@example.com (TJ) or firstname.lastname@example.org (Andrew). And follow the guys on Twitter @TJMathewson and @AndrewBell7 .