The Arizona State Sun Devils have battled through what many consider to be the toughest stretch of their schedule. They enter the backend of Pac-12 play by welcoming the Washington Huskies and Washington State Cougars to Wells Fargo Arena this week.
“We’ve gotta get some wins together,” said junior guard Shannon Evans II, referencing ASU’s 2-5 conference record. “We’ve gotta try and get wins, two at a time.”
The Sun Devils came up empty during their latest trip to Los Angeles, but with it now behind them, the opportunity to turn things around starts with a meeting against Washington.
Tipoff: 9:00 p.m., Mountain Time, Wednesday, Jan. 25
Radio: 98.7 FM—Sun Devil Sports Radio Network (Tim Healey, Kyle Dodd); TuneIn Online Stream
Although the Sun Devils (9-11, 2-5 in Pac-12) have dropped four games in a row (and five of their last six), intense effort has been consistent out of Bobby Hurley’s group. The problem for ASU has often been a slow start, something Hurley said “isn’t gonna work very often” following practice Tuesday.
“I liked it,” he said of the fight his team displays when trailing. “We have to take another step and just not put ourselves in that position. If we could get ourselves out of those situations, and just make it more of a possession game late, we’ll have a lot more chances to win closer games.”
This will be especially important for the Sun Devils on Wednesday. Much like ASU, Washington is a scrappy unit. The Huskies’ most recent demonstration of such occurred during their come-from-behind overtime win over Colorado last week.
“It’s gonna be difficult,” said Hurley of the matchup. “(There’s going to be) a lot of energy.”
“I know their record’s not as good as it should be,” Evans said. “They’re very talented.”
Evans’ statement is well-founded, as the Huskies tout arguably the best player in the entire conference — if not the entire country — in freshman guard Markelle Fultz.
“He’s a complete guard,” Hurley said. “Great size and very fluid with the ball. He has the ability to score and hurt you with his vision and passing ability. Even his defense.”
Fultz — a projected lottery pick currently averaging a Pac-12-high 23.4 points per game amidst shooting 49.2 percent from the field — drew plenty of respect from Evans, who’s already been dealt the task of defending some of college basketball’s best.
“(UCLA’s) Lonzo Ball, (Kentucky’s) Malik Monk — (Fultz is) one of the guys of that caliber,” said Evans. “There’s nothing you can really do to a guy like that that’s already a pro. You just gotta play hard.”
Hurley said Washington has gotten into tough spots this year, but Fultz’s ability prevents opponents from ever feeling too comfortable while ahead.
“They possess that quality of having a good fight in them, and having a player like Fultz, you’re never really out of it, no matter what the margin is,” Hurley said. “So we’re gonna have to be ready to play 40 minutes.”
Playing a complete 40 minutes hasn’t been something that’s come easily for ASU this season.
Lack of roster depth has forced Hurley to play his starters — who are often already at a physical disadvantage — for extensive periods of time. Entering Wednesday, Evans (fourth in Pac-12, 34.5 minutes per game), guard Tra Holder (sixth, 33.8), and forwards Obinna Oleka (11th, 32.9) and Torian Graham (12th, 32.8) rank among the conference leaders for minutes played per game, with each tallying over 30 minutes per game. (The Sun Devils are the only team to have more than three players in the top 20 of the category.)
Offseason losses, a midseason departure and injuries have hindered the Sun Devils from doing much which their cast. There have been multiple occasions this year where Hurley has found himself picking from just seven scholarship players.
Said Hurley of the bench’s importance against the Huskies, and beyond: “We’re gonna need contributions from our bench, and production and minutes.”
One player Hurley hasn’t had to pry production out of is Oleka.
The 6-foot-7, undersized forward is averaging 13.6 points and 10.6 rebounds per contest, and leads the Pac-12 with 11 double-doubles (tied 13th-most nationally).
“I feel like he’s done a great job, offensively and defensively,” Evans said of his senior teammate. “He’s undersized and he’s a center, so getting all the rebounds against seven-footers and things like that, he’s contributing real well to us.”
“The buy-in is there from him,” Hurley said of Oleka. “He’s taking it personal. I’m very, very proud of what he’s doing.”
Like Oleka’s performance, Hurley hasn’t shied from praising Graham’s contribution for ASU. The second-year coach made sure to remind folks of his play once again Wednesday.
“Torian has been good all year,” Hurley said. “Just can count on him to put points on the board for us. He’s just doing everything I could’ve asked.”
Graham is averaging 18.8 points per game (second in Pac-12) through 20 games. Hurley said Graham’s work through preseason practices set the tone for him to have such a successful year.
“He’s backed it up with his play on the court,” Hurley said.
“We give him the leeway, because he can make difficult shots, he can make clutch shots, and he can make them when we need them.”
Hurley continued, saying Graham has even lobbied to enter games once in rhythm, upon which the 6-foot-5 shooter is given the green light to shoot.
“We’ve gotten the ball in his hands, and he’s come through,” Hurley said. “We’re gonna let him be himself. As long as does what I need him to do in terms of effort, attitude and being a good leader, he’s gonna have the freedom on offense.”
The Sun Devils must hope that freedom, and a bevy of others, can lead to a positive result they can use to kickstart their season sooner than later.