The conference season had not been kind to ASU (19-6, 7-6 Pac-12).
The 12-0 start, the No. 3 ranking, all of the national esteem Bobby Hurley and Co. racked up seemed to have been vanishing before it truly had time to ferment itself in the desert.
Like all sports cities, but perhaps more visibly shown through its teams’ attendance, or lack there of, Phoenix likes winners. Arguably to their credit, most Phoenix sports fans abide on the “what have you done for me lately?” philosophy.
As the Devils’ Pac-12 weekend splits kept coming, most saw ASU’s non-conference and conference slates as two completely different seasons, two completely different teams.
The animosity stemming from ASU’s inconsistency even took itself out on the stadium nickname. Some fans were ready to do away with calling Wells Fargo Arena “The Bank.”
It ain't the bank no more. It's just a credit union...— Sun Devil Mike (@djgazooz) January 26, 2018
The tweet was most likely the product of the fan’s acrimony while waiting for ASU to get back to its conference form. The high-flying, run-and-gun offense that helped the Devils knock off the likes of Kansas State, Xavier and Kansas wasn’t showing itself — at least not for two straight games.
With each new weekend, each new set of teams, the Devils script remained identical. Lose the first game, win the second. The scenario replayed itself for the first six weeks of conference play.
The Devils ranking was dropping, and their elusive Pac-12 weekend sweep remained just that.
More than three-quarters into Hurley’s second season in Tempe, ASU was still chasing that conference sweep. Based upon the manner in which the Devils steamrolled through their non-conference slate, the sweep seemed inevitable.
It would take everything coming together, the Devils flashing their non-conference form to escape the monkey. Most figured the Oregon schools at home or maybe the Northern California schools in the Bay would be the victims. After all, they don’t present the strongest resumes in the Pac-12.
But in their 80-78 win over USC (17-8, 8-4) on Thursday and 88-79 victory against UCLA (17-8, 8-5) on Saturday, everything finally came together.
— ASU started making shots. It shot 42 percent from the field both nights while hitting a combined 15 three-pointers.
— The Devils’ struggles at the charity stripe became their strength versus the Bruins. ASU started the game 18-18 from the line and after a few garbage time fouls, ended the game 25-28 ( 89 percent).
— Arizona State’s defense came alive. The Devils forced USC into 18 turnovers and UCLA into 8 while not getting bogged down with fouls. Over the two-game stretch, the Devils committed 11 fewer fouls and shot 28 more free throws.
“That’s been a key,” Hurley said of the Devils’ turnover differential. “It should have been part of my opening remarks. That’s been a key during this stretch. I think, especially in the USC game that turnover differential and we were plus five tonight.”
Sun Devil guard Tra Holder added: “Some of the players on their team were like ‘damn, your guy’s defense.’ In the non-conference people really complimented us for our defense. We’re getting back to that and that’s what’s transitioned into getting a victory.
— And most distinctly seen (and heard) against UCLA was the crowd erupting through Wells Fargo Arena, I mean “The Bank.” 14,025 people packed the place Saturday to make it the most attended game this season, and the most attended game since the wall went up in 2010.
After beating USC, guard Shannon Evans said that the crowd makes ASU “play defense harder.” That notion seemed to be confirmed against UCLA.
Evans, along with Holder and Hurley, seemed to be trying to take full advantage of the cheers, raising their arms signaling for the crowd to get louder after multiple big shots including Holder’s triple to put ASU up 13 early in the second half and even when freshman Kimani Lawrence hit a pair of free throws with over six minutes left.
“They make us go,” Holder said. “Shannon does a great job getting the crowd involved in the game and then when that goes, we just keep rolling.
“I don’t know if the could do a calculation of like when the crowd gets louder and if we play better or not, but I’m sure it’s very high.”