"At Arizona State, we play defense."
That quote came Sun Devil football player Jordan Simone after the maroon and gold took down Stanford at home earlier this season, allowing just 10 points. They held the Cardinal to 76 yards on the ground and didn't give up a single point in the first half. After their game against Stanford, Arizona State found their groove on the defensive side of the ball and as a team have had more success since that game.
While the parallels between the gridiron and hard court are few and far between as far as playing style and rules are concerned, similarities can be found in terms of defensive ability. While somewhat of a mystery to begin the season on the basketball court, the Sun Devils in the gym may have also found out who they are in the way they play defense.
"I was really pleased with our defensive preparation and execution tonight," head coach Herb Sendek said after the victory over Loyola Marymount Thursday night. "I thought we played an outstanding defensive basketball game."
The statistical advantage on the defensive end is evident. In their first three games, the Sun Devils have yet to allow more than 50 points, giving up just 14 to Bethune-Cookman which tied for the third fewest points given up by Arizona State in the first half since the 1989-90 season. Last season's team only allowed fewer than 50 points one time against Washington State in conference play.
"We're going to have to defend," Sendek said. "These guys have really brought into it. We don't have a great deal of separation between players so I think we're able to keep relatively fresh guys on people."
Arizona State held LMU to 28.1 percent shooting from the field, the best since 2010 against Oregon State. They also held the Lions to 9.1 percent shooting from beyond the three point line. Evan Payne, who came into the game averaging 22.5 points per game, managed just nine points against the Sun Devils.
"We were just on top of what they were doing with our positioning," Sendek said. "They just did a really good job of executing the game plan and they played with really good effort on defense."
Some credit must be given to Sendek. Extremely athletic teams are typically on one end of the spectrum when it comes to playing defense, either they're incredibly stout on the defensive end or spend so much time crafting their handles and offensive abilities that they don't care to get better on the defensive end. The Arizona State coaching staff has clearly made sure the Sun Devils remain responsible for the latter.
The depth has also helped Arizona State, who were also able to keep fresh defenders on the best players of opposing teams. Defense like that also comes at a price. Players become less sure of their own roles and not developing a true spot on the team can work mind tricks.
Playing excruciatingly tough defense means the offense might suffer some too, but outside of their game against Bethune-Cookman, Arizona State has been well-balanced with three different leading scorers through their first three games. Arizona State has also had at least three players with double-digit points in two of their first three contests. They're sharing the ball too, averaging 15 assists.
Back on the defensive side, the team still has room to improve their deflections according to Sendek, but he also thinks their ability to corral 50-50 balls is heightened due to the group's athleticism.
"Over the course of the past two weeks I would say, our defense has improved dramatically," Sendek said. "I thought we just did a fabulous job on that end of the floor."