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ASU basketball: No. 25 Sun Devils face harsh challenge against Washington’s 2-3 zone

ASU will need to be in the zone while facing UW’s zone

NCAA Basketball: Colorado at Arizona State Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

As No. 25 Arizona State’s euphoric success started dwindling back down to earth, the theories environing the regression kept coming up as if the fall of the Roman Empire was being discussed.

Instead of pointing to economic troubles and overexpansion, though, shooting slumps and zone defenses seemed to have been the main culprits for ASU.

Just like the way shooting slumps are viewed, many viewed the Sun Devils’ offensive struggles against the zone as merely a phase. And then they kept having problems. Against Colorado, against Utah and so on.

The offense that outran, outshot and outworked the likes of Kansas State, Xavier and Kansas hit a speed bump.

ASU was forced to tap the breaks just as it was cruising through its non-conference slate. Bottom feeders Longwood and Pacific tested out the defensive experiment first and found slivers of success, but success nonetheless.

Longwood hung with the Devils for the first half before ASU shot them back into a man-to-man look. The strategy held up. And with better athletes and better defenders, it would thrive.

For the majority of its Pac-12 slate, opponents have thrown a zone defense at ASU. The open shots that propelled the Devils to a program-best 12-0 record and a No. 3 ranking became contested.

Prior to the Colorado game on Saturday, the Devils’ points per game had dropped 8.3 points from their non-conference schedule to Pac-12 play. They were also giving up five more points, too, as their field goal percentage dropped 5.2 percent in that span.

Most teams had to apply a complete 180 to their defensive scheme before playing ASU. Switching from a man to a zone defense is no walk in the park.

Luckily for Washington, it’s already taken the brave stroll through the park, and will have to change nothing against ASU on Thursday.

Since UW head coach Mike Hopkins took over in Seattle in March of 2017, the Huskies have forged defensive dominance in the form of the 2-3 zone.

Washington’s defensive shift should come as no surprise to people. Hopkins is a product of Syracuse, a disciple of Jim Boehiem. And while spending 21 years on Boehiem’s bench, Hopkins was not only learning 2-3 zone, but he was learning how to teach it.

ASU guard Shannon Evans seemed well aware.

“Their coach is from Syracuse,” Evans said. “Obviously it’s one of the best zones.”

Boeheim’s 2-3 zone is synonymous with college basketball, proving its supremacy for more than two decades — and if Boeheim is the king of the 2-3 zone, then perhaps Hopkins is the prince.

It held up as Syracuse moved from the Big East to the ACC — and just eight games into his Pac-12 slate, Hopkins is showing that it works in the Pac-12 too.

“They’re committed to it,” Hurley said. “They work on it and their coach has had years of experience teaching it. You can tell that they just practice it.

“There’s different things that coaches value and you can tell that they spend time because they are very active, they have good length.”

Washington leads the conference in 3-point field goal percentage (27 percent), and is currently second in scoring defense (67.9 PPG), defensive field goal percentage (41.9 percent) and steals (7.5 per game).

The steals total is bolstered largely because of UW guard Matisse Thybulle’s conference-leading 2.6 steals a game. His 6-foot-5 frame seems to get in front of countless lazy passes, something Hurley knows ASU must avoid.

“Thybulle has always been a very good defender and now he’s been put into a position where he can use his instincts and his athletic ability to try and get steals,”Hurley said. “If you are weak with the ball and you try and go into the heart of their zone, they are going to get deflections.”

The Sun Devils have had their struggles against the zone defense, but they’ve seen it. Like working their way through a bracket, they’ve had time to prepare and battle against mediocre zones all leading up to their toughest challenge in the Huskies’ 2-3 outline.

Hurley said he’s glad his team is playing UW “at this stage in the season,” after how many other teams have thrown the zone at ASU.

Here’s how they plan to combat Washington’s.

“You’ve got to be able to connect with some shots of distance,” Hurley said.

Added Evans: “We’re going to try and attack the gaps and kick out for threes and dump into (forwards) Romello (White) and De’Quon (Lake) and Vitaliy (Shibel). We just have to take what they give us.

“If they give us that deep 3, we’re going to take that as well.”