Sun Devils continue to contend with key injuries
Across their 2020-21 campaign, Bobby Hurley’s Arizona State Sun Devils have been through enough trials and tribulations to make any basketball fanatic’s head spin. Seemingly playing from behind week after week due to COVID-19 cancellations/postponements, absences, and injuries, the Sun Devils find themselves between a rock and a hard place as they battle through the remainder of their schedule ahead of the Pac-12 Tournament in mid-March while also nursing a battered and bruised team back to health.
Foremost among the health issues is the absence of freshman superstars Josh Christopher and Marcus Bagley, who have been out of action due to injuries suffered against Oregon and Cal, respectively.
When meeting with reporters on Monday, Hurley mentioned that Bagley was much closer to a return than Christopher, who has transitioned into physical therapy to nurse a back injury back to health. Bagley, meanwhile, was a limited participant in Monday’s practice but did more than normal.
“He’s going to go through a shootaround tomorrow and pre-game warmups and see how he feels, and he’ll make a determination,” Hurley explained. “As long as he doesn’t have any unforeseen setbacks, I would anticipate him getting back soon, and he’s needed. His shooting and his rebounding are exactly the piece of the puzzle that’s missing for us right now.”
It’s no secret that size is ASU’s kryptonite. Forwards Jalen Graham and Kimani Lawrence have been forced to do the heavy lifting in the frontcourt with some help from walk-on John Olmsted due to the absence of Bagley and limited participation from an injured Chris Osten. Upon Bagley’s return, the Sun Devils will get an instant boost on both sides of the floor and in another aspect of the ASU’s game in which it has struggled, foul trouble.
Matched up against the mighty Mobley Brothers of USC and Cody Riley of UCLA, Graham fouled out in both contests, while Osten also fouled out against the Trojans.
Yet, instead of blaming the Sun Devil bigs for careless mistakes or tough contested attempts, Hurley focused on making it a team-oriented responsibility. The Sun Devils have a conference worst 20.3 player fouls per contest, so any matter of assistance or depth that can be added to the lineup can provide some breathing room down low.
“(Not all of Graham’s fouls) were his responsibility; it was an error by someone else, so we have to try and avoid those situations if possible,” he said. “Chris was in a similar situation…he was not really in foul trouble, but in a flash, he was so we have to try and avoid that, especially at that position.”
“That’s why getting Marcus back as soon as possible really matters,” Hurley added. “He will help our rebounding, our interior defense, our shooting, our athleticism; he just checks a number of boxes that would help support that five position in the post.”
With Bagley back in the lineup, Hurley’s options expand. If Graham finds himself in foul trouble; Hurley can shift Lawrence to the five slot, while plugging and playing Bagley in at the four amidst a trio of guards in the backcourt.
Despite Graham’s struggles down low, Hurley commended the sophomore for his effort, finding solace in his production in other categories despite the foul trouble bug.
“The UCLA game (for Graham) was kind of a throw-out game for me and I thought he did a commendable job against the Mobley's; there aren’t two players in college basketball like those guys,” Hurley said. “Jalen is coming on; he’s putting together a good second half of the year, and I’m happy because we had a good talk about that, and he’s responded well.”
Hurley also commended the performances of the walk-on Olmsted, who has provided valuable minutes in need of added depth in the frontcourt, as well as Lawrence, who is playing at the best level across his Sun Devil career due to a small tune-up with his jump shot.
“My expectations for John have gotten higher,” Hurley chuckled. “I’ve seen him do some things out there, rebound the ball…he needs to rebound the ball better late in the game. His charge was fantastic, the way he rotated in a key moment to get that charge. He’s got to be ready going forward.”
“One minor change has unlocked his whole game,” Hurley said of Lawrence. “He’s more confident; he’s probably our best rotation defensive player getting charges. He’s rebounded the ball extremely well; he’s moving the ball, he’s been a recipient…It’s a major success story for me to see him playing the way he’s playing right now because he was in his thoughts about his shot. I’m just happy to see a kid that’s a senior make this type of progress when he was kind of down at one point this season.”
Nevertheless, only a few contests remain for Hurley’s squad to improve its record ahead of a trip to Las Vegas, including a two-game slate against the Washington Huskies on Tuesday and Thursday in Tempe, before staying at Desert, Financial Arena to face the Washington State Cougars. There have also been discussions about a potential trip to make up the games lost against Utah and Colorado.
Ahead of a tightly packed week, Hurley outlined the challenges that the Sun Devils will face against the Huskies and Cougars, before pulling on an anecdote from his past that might rejuvenate the spirits of an Arizona State squad that has faced unprecedented challenges.
“(UW and WSU) have been playing better, so we have to be ready. That’s why I’m just managing the guys today and getting the recovery we need. It was a lot of skill work, not a ton of live work to make sure that we are healthy going into this stretch,” Hurley said. “I talked with the team about trying to gain momentum; we potentially still could play six regular-season games if everything goes to plan.”
“I remember a similar scenario my second year at Buffalo; we had just lost a heartbreaking game at the buzzer to go 5-5 in conference play and then we won six straight from that point. We went on to win two more in the conference tournament, we won eight straight games and went to the NCAA Tournament…Certainly this time of year, you want to start gravitating towards playing your best basketball, and I think we did that for 33 minutes against USC and 38 minutes against UCLA.”