Hurley wants team to turn back to its defensive prowess
Following their first pair of consecutive losses on the season, plenty of the college basketball world has begun to dismiss the Sun Devils. After dropping their Thursday and Saturday home tilts with UCLA and USC, respectively, ASU went from receiving 79 votes in the AP Poll to zero. Several bracketology indexes have Bobby Hurley’s team clinging to the field of 68 by a thread, if at all. However, rather than express his usual high-energy displeasure, coach Hurley understood the uncharacteristic struggles his players had last weekend.
“Those games were emotionally and physically draining,” Hurley said. “You could be nasty and yell at everyone, but I chose a different direction. To be more supportive and thankful of what the players have put together this season to this point.”
It’s certainly hard to get on anyone about a 15-5 season with a 6-3 mark in one of the toughest conferences in the country. Yet, losing two straight league games at home, though, can’t come without criticism.
“We didn’t perform with the appropriate energy on defense and really struggled on that end of the floor. Usually, when that would happen, I might flip out, and that would be mentally tough on the guys with the grueling film and a very physical, track practice-style workout. But the team has performed well through wide margins of the season. I felt that was the best path to take.”
Rather than harp on his players' disappointing weekend, Hurley’s rest-and-recharge approach was received positively by his players in this week’s practice runs following their last two games.
“I noticed guys were very unhappy about our performance on Saturday night,” Hurley said. “Myself and the coaches expressed the things we have to get back to doing in order to be successful again. We were guarding better the last two days.”
Having solidified their identity as a team through their defensive efforts this season, Arizona State’s shortcomings from the weekend will have to be remedied in preparation for their trip to Washington and Washington State on another Thursday-Saturday slate, respectively. Having played both teams down to the wire in Tempe this year, Hurley is keenly looking for ways to make these second rounds go in the favor of the maroon and gold. Against Washington specifically, the Huskies ran a zone defense that threw off ASU’s offensive sets in the early going. While they overcame it to win 73-65, Hurley doesn’t want a repeat of a first half where the Devils had just 28 points at the break.
“Looking back to that game, I think we did struggle early against it,” Hurley said. “As we got in a rhythm, we were able to find some cracks in it and figure out where our opportunities were.”
Their opportunities would come from the fast break and the paint, where the Sun Devils racked up 23 points in transition and 38 total in the paint. The quick pace is something Hurley looks to bring to Seattle while also keeping up the urgency in ball movement while in the halfcourt.
“We’ve been a balanced offensive team,” Hurley said. “We’ve had the most success this year when we’ve moved the basketball very well.”
Case in point, the Sun Devils averaged 11.6 assists per game in their five losses this season, far below the team’s total mark of 15. On beating the Washington zone, Hurley championed the up-tempo approach, which will rely on the team’s defending.
“The best offense is a good defense to beat the zone down the floor so they can’t set up,” Hurley said. “Hopefully, we could try to advance the ball quickly before they can get the zone set.”
With the zone designed to take away the paint, Hurley hopes to get the team out and running so as to keep center Warren Washington from being neutralized like he was in the first matchup, scoring just seven points.
“He’s gonna be a focal point with the style of defense and the zone,” Hurley said. “There are different things we can do scheme-wise. He was certainly a bright spot in our USC loss. He performed as well as everybody in that game. We need his experience and everything he brings to the table these next two games.”
Among the few positives from the UCLA and USC losses, Warren Washington might’ve been the most significant bright spot. His defensive presence against the Bruins was key in keeping UCLA’s Adem Bona off the scoreboard while fueling the struggling Sun Devils offense with 21 points against USC.
While the offensive focus will surely be placed on sharing the wealth and getting everyone involved, it’s the other end of the floor that the team is most focused on repairing ahead of the road trip. In the defeats to UCLA and USC, the Bruins and Trojans both shot exceptionally well against a Sun Devil team that ranks 15th in the nation on Torvik in effective field goal defensive percentage. Hurley knows they need to get back to that form quickly, not just for the sake of stopping their bleeding but opening the cuts of their opponents.
“So much is gonna depend on how we defend,” Hurley said. “If we allow teams to shoot 50 percent as the last two teams did, then we’re gonna struggle to win. If we could generate stops and take some pressure on our offense, we typically get into a pretty good flow at that end of the floor.”
The work on the glass is also something the team is looking at ahead of Thursday. In their slow start on offense in their first meeting with Washington, the Huskies secured a notable 13 offensive rebounds against a team that doesn’t make it easy in that department.
“We gave up too many offensive rebounds in our last match with Washington,” Hurley said. “That’s something we’ve discussed internally and in practice.”
With the rebounding battle going the other way in their two-game losing streak, the sense of urgency is even higher against a Washington team that shoots a respectable 43 percent from the field. Cleaning up their misses will be key for the Sun Devils to run their desired offense and get points efficiently.
Arizona State’s next two contests in the Evergreen state are critical for restoring the rhythm and respect the team had garnered throughout the first two months of the season. With the memory of last week sending the Sun Devils back to the bubble of most bracketology sites, the margin for error is shrinking by the day. And while the tournament and beyond is the ultimate goal, Hurley isn’t getting too far ahead of what’s right in front of them.
“I’m burying my head in the sand here and figuring out how to win one game at a time,” Hurley noted.