Just seconds after the USF Dons had opened the first lead of the game with a three pointer, the Arizona State Sun Devils (7-0) looked every bit the team that was off to its best start in nearly 40 years.
They countered with a 25-3 run, scoring on six of their next eight possessions en route to an early 21-6 lead that could only be stopped by San Francisco timeouts. It looked effortless, energetic and consistent with what the Devils had done all season long.
Then the Devils’ offense took on another form, one that looked eerily similar to the production levels ASU has displayed over the course of the last five seasons.
The Sun Devils began to make scoring look extremely difficult, managing just five points across the first five minutes of the second half. They then used two-consecutive five minute segments to score six and four, respectively.
“You’re always concerned about this game,” head coach Bobby Hurley said following Arizona State’s 75-57 victory. “I was very concerned about it because of the layoff and also what we accomplished last weekend and the bounce-back effect.”
Hurley added that there aren’t many times during the course of the season to give your team a break, but he found one following ASU’s sweep of Kansas State and Xavier last weekend that led them to a Continental Tire Invitational Championship.
“Throughout different times during the year you’re not going to get very many times to give your team a breather,” Hurley said. “I kind of gave my team a little bit of a breather this week. It was a very emotional weekend for us last weekend...I’m not surprised we didn’t play at our best level on offense.”
A team that has oft been praised for its offensive versatility struggled to get any one player to produce down the stretch. Senior guard Tra Holder forced his way into double digits after a terrible first period, making eight shots from the free throw line to bring his total to 15 when the game came to a close.
The Dons also played honorable defense down low — though they gave up a total of 34 in the paint — as they held junior forward De’Quon Lake to just two points on one of two shooting across 18 minutes on the court.
In a night where Lake, Holder, Shannon Evans II, Kodi Justice and Vitaliy Shibel all shot 50 percent or worse from the floor, freshman Romello White seemed to be the only player that contributed to the preservation of the Sun Devils’ early lead. The 6-foot-8 forward managed 16 points an 13 rebounds, both beyond his season averages.
“I feel like they saw what we was doing and they switched up their defense,” White said. “We just have to make the adjustment next time.”
Even White succumbed to a form of regression against USF, shooting nearly 10 percent lower than his season average from the charity stripe.
“I made six and I was like ‘okay I’m good,’” White said. “Then I missed four more and I was like ‘I don’t know what to do.’ Coach told me I gotta shoot 500 free throws on Monday, so, it’ll help.”
Unlike any contest we’ve seen so far this season, the Sun Devils’ defensive performance would ultimately give ASU the during the Devils’ seventh-consecutive victory.
Arizona State’s pressure around the perimeter and daunting size down low forced the Dons to often use the entirety of the shot clock and heave three point attempts all evening. USF launched 40 shots from behind the arc and only connected on 11.
“Really throughout the course of the game our defensive numbers were pretty good,” Hurley said. “You’re not always going to play your best or your cleanest on offense. You gotta be able to rely on your energy and be able to play on both sides of the floor.”
Saturday night’s performance was a reality check for the Sun Devils, a team that has plenty of offensive firepower but has mostly ridden unsustainable production while getting off to its best start to a season since the 1980-81 campaign.
Seven tough non-conference games have come and gone, but the next stretch remains equally as disconcerting for Hurley’s squad. ASU’s next two opponents in St. Johns and Kansas are a combined 14-1.
If Arizona State wants to continue to distance itself from the image it’s created over the course of the last three seasons, it had better put this performance in the rearview mirror — especially as the Sun Devils head into the most difficult two-game stretch they’ve faced yet.