Arizona State men’s basketball entered the night looking for an early statement win over a ranked opponent in the No. 24 ranked San Diego State Aztecs. Instead, the Devils are facing more questions after a disappointing 80-68 loss Thursday night at Desert Financial Arena.
Less than four minutes into the game, however, it looked as if Arizona State (3-2) was about to be run off the court. San Diego State (5-0) hit a flurry of early three-pointers, and established a 14-2 advantage.
Likewise, the first eight minutes of the game were sluggish all around for the Sun Devils. Offensively, the team was shooting 27 percent from the field, mostly due to team shot selection that left a lot to be desired from ASU head coach Bobby Hurley.
The Aztecs ran several different defensive looks at the Devils throughout the game. Most of the time it was a 2-3 zone, sometimes it was man-to-man, other times the Aztecs could switch into a half-court trap.
A lot of credit should go to SDSU head coach Brian Dutcher, as his defense rarely surrendered easy baskets to the Sun Devil offense.
Defensively, the team’s early season struggles with rebounding were on full display again, as SDSU had the rebounding edge 44 to 37. The inability to box out on the defensive end stifled ASU’s speed in transition, their best offensive weapon.
Midway through the first half, ASU was in danger of losing touch with the Aztecs. That’s when Remy Martin gave his best impression of Jayden Daniels and threw pin-point deep passes to Josh Christopher, who began to release early after Aztec shots in successful attempts to get behind the defense in transition.
Suddenly, a stagnant offense was off to the races. Christopher began to get to work, using his length and finesse to find his way to the free-throw line.
It looked like it was going to be another great national TV performance for the freshman, but Christopher cooled down in the second half, and ended up fouling out with 13 points.
Alonzo Verge Jr., back from missing two games, settled in and began to become a threat not just to score but to facilitate as well. It was a career night from behind the arc for Verge, as he finished with 25 points on 50 percent from three-point range.
As for Martin, he began to do the things we have come to expect from the senior point guard, connecting on two three-pointers from way downtown toward the end of the first half to bring the Devils even with the Aztecs.
But the Aztecs were able to withstand the Sun Devil run, and to begin the second half, started to best the Devils at their own game.
Repeated transition buckets from Aztecs Jordan Schakel and Terrell Gomez allowed SDSU to stretch out to a 51-43 lead with 12:07 left in the second half.
Schakel put together his best game of the year, then the best game of his career. Simply put, the senior guard scorched the Devils in Tempe. He finished his night with 25 points on 9-14 shooting, including 5-9 from three-point range.
There are several issues keeping the Sun Devils from their full potential, but one stands above the rest: The team has little to no presence inside. Jalen Graham had some nice post up hook shots and Christ Osten secured some impressive offensive rebounds, but the Devils were routinely bullied in the paint.
The biggest of all the Aztec bullies was Nathan Mensah, who, like Schakel, had a career-high in points. Mensah finished the night with 17 points on 7-12 from the field. He added 15 rebounds as well.
This Sun Devil team is as talented as a Martin Scorsese feature film, but there are too many times the offense takes on the look of a pickup five-on-five at the local YMCA.
To my recollection, there were zero layups on the night for the Devils outside of garbage time. Hard to win games that way.
ASU still has time to work out its problems and challenge for the PAC-12 title, as many expected coming into the season. The team’s next game is a simple road trip to Grand Canyon University to play the Antelopes on Sunday at 1 p.m. AZ time.