The game was back and forth all night, containing spectacular plays, plenty of angry coaches and glimpses into the future of what this rivalry could soon become — one of the best in the conference, if not the country.
Here are five things we learned from Arizona State’s conference-opening loss:
1. Deandre Ayton got his, but the Sun Devils held their own under the basket — and more.
The 7 foot prime NBA prospect finished with a ludicrous 23 points and 19 rebounds. Arizona State shouldn’t get discouraged, though. Its best counter-attack is a 6 foot 8 freshman that, although decently large and long himself, pales in comparison to Ayton’s frame, because well, everyone does.
This is what players that are dubbed as “the next NBA unicorn” are going to do: dominate, dazzle and humiliate everyone on their way to the stage at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn this summer.
The takeaway from this performance at the McKale Center, one of the Sun Devils’ best in years, is that they actually played extremely well under the hoop. They finished with just four less defensive boards and two less points in the paint while out-rebounding the Wildcats by three offensively. That is sensational when you consider that Arizona regularly trots out two forwards that play near or well above 30 minutes a night and stand at least seven feet tall.
In comparison, ASU didn’t have a single player above 6 foot 7 manage 20 minutes on the court Saturday night.
Not being able to stop Ayton is a defensive trait that the Sun Devils have in common with the 13 other teams the Wildcats have played this season, so a generational prospect exploding for a huge stat line isn’t a lapse or a misstep for Hurley and co.
It’s what happens when a big cat is out for blood.
2. Tra Holder is the best point guard in the conference, but he can’t do it alone.
He may not actually be the best point guard in the country named Tra(e), but he’s far and away the best the Pac-12 has to offer at the position.
Seriously, only one point guard appears in the top three in the conference statistically in points, assists and steals per game: Holder. He’s scored over 31 points three times including a 40 point masterpiece against one of the best teams in the country in Xavier. Holder even hit his first 12 free throws, made four threes and sat just four minutes in a 31 point gem in Tucson Saturday night in which he singlehandedly lifted ASU from the grave multiple times.
The problem for ASU, however, was that it was only Holder having a terrific night.
The Sun Devils didn’t just grit their way to 12 straight wins or escape by the skin of their teeth like a true Cinderella, they dominated to the tune of 91.8 points per game and averaged a 20.1 point margin of victory.
That’s because Holder didn’t have to be that guy, he just was and others were too. Shannon Evans II has scored 17.8 points per game, Kodi Justice has nearly managed 14 and even freshman Remy Martin has gotten in on the double-digit scoring fun as of late.
But in Tuscon, Holder was the only ASU player that scored more than 11 points as Evans had a dismal 3 for 14 performance and Martin started out hot and froze over, finishing with just five made shots on 13 attempts.
Much like seasons past, Holder had to do everything himself and the Sun Devils came up short. Unlike previous campaigns though, if he gets just a bit more help from his backcourt companions, ASU’s offense may just be unstoppable.
3. “Sticky” Mickey Mitchell is making his presence known as Arizona State’s glue guy
Mitchell’s first play on a collegiate basketball court during a game in which the score, stats and result all mattered ended in disaster.
He ran down the lane, tried to turn and pass and fell down, losing the ball and Hurley’s confidence in his ability to produce immediately in a big game.
Since then, he has been a more-than-adequate replacement for freshman forward Kimani Lawrence, who has been sitting out for nearly six weeks due to a stress fracture in his left foot.
He’s fallen just a few boards or a basket short of a double double in each of his first four games with the Sun Devils, providing energy, court-awareness and a couple spectacular dunks along the way for a team that is unsure at best with what to do with its four spot.
Lawrence was the ideal candidate for the position but obviously he has been unavailable. Fellow freshman Vitaliy Shibel in theory is a terrific fit, (long, solid rebounder, three-point specialist type on offense) except he has been proven to be none of those things so far, hence the lack of confidence Hurley clearly has in him.
So, Hurley has been forced to start Mitchell at the four and he has held his own. He’ll never have a spectacular blow up game or a true show-stopping moment, but he has been incredibly consistent in spreading the ball around to the best players on the court, rebounding and making the smart play.
4. Romello White had another complete stinker, his second against a strong opponent.
White’s overall first-impression 13 games in has been positive in Tempe, but its worth noting he has a tendency to disappear every so often.
This tendency first developed against No. 15 Xavier in Las Vegas. Across 18 minutes on the court, White had four personal fouls, five boards and just one field goal attempt. He managed four points that game, all from the free throw line. That was the contest in which Holder went berserk, but one of “Guard U”s pillars is that the opponent respects the post game, thus opening up opportunities for the backcourt to let it fly.
It then happened again — against Longwood, a team with just one starter taller that 6 foot 5. White played just 20 minutes, but once again was a non-factor. He had seven points, six rebounds and shot three times from the free throw lines.
Against Arizona, White had his worst game of the season. Two points, eight boards and five fouls in 18 minutes on the court. He also added two missed free throws. White has shown flashes of brilliance this season, but sometimes the spark fails to light and the Devils’ backcourt is forced to run the show. Luckily for the Sun Devils, though, the guards have overcome those moments more often than not.
But they couldn’t make it past his third disappearing act.
5. Arizona State is still competing for the Pac-12, an extremely high seed and is poised for a deep run in March
All of these things were true before tip-off and remain true the morning after ASU’s first loss of season.
Three threes falling in a row for Dylan Smith. Kodi Justice shooting 1 for 8 from the field. Tra Holder missing a crucial layup. A couple very-friendly rolls off the rim and some questionable foul calls. All of these aspects of the game were what decided it, and they could have gone either way.
In years past in the McKale Center, it was a matter of a complete differential in talent and athleticism, not a few key moments that didn’t get tipped in the Sun Devils’ favor. That’s a huge improvement for the program, and a sign that Hurley may have already brought his team to the same level as the perennial power from down South.