The defensive renaissance undergone by ASU basketball this season has been the primary instigator behind the Sun Devils 8-2 start, as head coach Bobby Hurley and staff have transformed a previously defensively inept unit into one of the nation’s stingiest groups.
The team has found immense success marrying sound defensive principles with a quickened pace, thriving in a chaotic style built on ball pressure, hard close outs, and limiting the opposition to one shot.
Hurley’s team’s in his short time in Tempe have been consistently poor defensively, averaging a finish of almost 217 out of the 353 division one teams in defensive rating, including a 336th overall ranking in the 2016-17 season.
This year though, has been a drastically different story, as ASU currently owns the country’s 15th best defensive rating while playing a schedule featuring three opponents inside the top-20 nationwide in scoring (Georgia, San Francisco and St. John’s).
Many on the team have attributed their early defensive success to an increased emphasis on up-tempo play, employing a deep rotation of guards to push the pace and force opponents into quick shots.
The combination of elite defense and a fast pace style is a unique pairing, as ASU currently stands as the only Division I team to fall in the top-30 in both defensive rating and pace.
“This is a great team to play fast,” junior guard Remy Martin said. “We have talented guys, guys that want to play defense, want to play both sides of the ball. It’s always good when you have guys that want to play defense and want to play fast, that really complements our style.”
One of those guys is freshman guard Jaelen House, who’s tremendous length and lateral quickness have made him a force defensively from his first day on campus. He has worked to make an immediate impact on the Sun Devils’ second unit, often picking up the team’s opposing point guard the length of the court.
Despite some slight struggles offensively for House in the early parts of his freshman season, as he comes into Wednesday’s game against St. Mary’s shooting just 30.8% from the field, the freshman has carved himself out an essential role as one of the team’s premiere defensive stoppers.
“Tremendously,” assistant coach Rashad Burno said when asked if House has helped change ASU’s defensive identity. “He takes pride in defending. He understands what his value is to the team night in and night out, and when you have a guard like that that can extend pressure, it can really help force tempo.”
The entire team has worked to embrace the fast-paced defensive attack, with Hurley establishing a strong effort on defense as a prerequisite for play time.
Junior forward Kimani Lawrence acknowledged that after the team’s win over Georgia, that a renewed defensive intensity helped spurn his offensive revival, while Burno has recognized the need to “rely on defense to generate offense.”
“Defense is something coach has been preaching since we got together in June, because we knew the offense was going to take time to get comfortable with all the new moving points,” Burno said. “So defense has been a point of emphasis and it will continue to be a point until we get the offense the way we want it.”
ASU’s offensive progression took a big step in the team’s takedown of Georgia, achieving a new level of offensive efficiency as the team looks to end its non-conference schedule on a high note.
The Sun Devils shot 49.5 percent from the field in the win, a season-high, while attempting their second most shots in a game this season (67).
The improvements made Saturday signal a turning of the tide for ASU as the team works to translate its strong play into more wins.
“It was fun, the bench was getting involved. We’ve been winning a lot of games, but it hasn’t been as fun,” Lawrence said after Saturday’s win. “It’s fun moving the ball around, seeing everybody score the right way, seeing everybody get a little piece of it … The ball has energy, so when the ball is popping around and everybody’s touching it, even if you’re not shooting it, just touching the ball feels good and makes you play a little bit harder.”
The next step for ASU remains maintaining this free flowing style rather than reverting back to the poor habits that helped contribute to an offensive malaise earlier in the season.
Much of that falls on Martin, who as the team’s primary scorer and facilitator, must carefully straddle the line between the two. As he works to strike the perfect balance, he acknowledges the comfort he feels in playing within ASU’s up-tempo style.
“I love it, that’s our pace,” Martin said of the team’s play Saturday. “That reminds me of the last two years here. Just the energy, how we get up and down the court, the flashy plays … I love our pace and we’ve just got to continue to do it.”
The Sun Devils will wrap up their non-conference schedule with battles against St. Mary’s, Creighton and Texas Southern before traveling to Tucson in early January to take on the 16th ranked Wildcats and kick off their conference schedule.
With a number of much-improved Pac-12 teams looming, ASU recognizes the importance of escaping December unscathed. Martin specifically understands the flaws that still plague this team, and the importance of fixing those flaws sooner rather than later.
“We’ve been very good on defense,” Martin said, “and once our offense clicks, we’ll be a pretty dangerous team.”