For the first time in almost a month, Arizona State men’s basketball was played in Desert Financial Arena after a myriad of reasons ranging from pandemic-related to power outages caused delay after delay.
On a night where the Sun Devils (5-9, 1-3 Pac-12) dusted off a classic uniform set, the rust from playing just one game in the last 27 days proved too much to knock off. The team was blown out in the second half on the way to a third-straight loss, on Saturday night it was to Colorado 75-57.
The Sun Devils shot just 33 percent from the field and 23 percent from 3-point land. It was the seventh time this season the team has shot below 30 percent from behind the arc.
Couple that with the Buffaloes (12-4, 4-2 Pac-12) stampede of 3-pointers throughout the game, which accounted for 40 percent of their 75 points, and it was an unsustainable formula for the Sun Devils to remain in contact with Colorado, which led from tip-to-buzzer on Saturday night.
Forward Jalen Graham, who had just returned to practice with the team less than three days ago, was a prolific scoring option off the bench early on. Graham did not miss a shot in a first half where he registered 11 points and finished with 16 on the night to lead the team.
“I feel like I am getting healthier, I had to take some more time off than some other guys,” Graham said. “I wasn’t surprised with my performance, but I’m happy with it.”
But as with most of his teammates on Saturday night, Graham’s scoring ability faced serious attrition in the second half, and he only mustered five more points on 2 for 8 shooting in the final 20 minutes.
Two stretches in each half defined the game. The former occurred in the opening minutes where a staggering Sun Devil team haplessly watched as the Buffaloes raced out to a 15-3 advantage and threatened to blow the doors off the Sun Devils.
In that instance, the Sun Devils displayed a tremendous amount of grit, and fought back into contention with a 12-1 run to make the score a one-point game at 16-15.
The latter occurred in the second half, and it effectively ended the game. The Buffaloes methodically stretched their three-point halftime lead up to eight in the opening four minutes of the half.
Once again, the Sun Devils began to rattle off a response, clawing back to within five. That’s when the Buffaloes shifted into high gear and accelerated away from the Sun Devils. Their next three shot attempts, all 3-pointers, were money, and the Buffaloes splashed away to another double-digit lead.
It proved too great for the Sun Devils to overcome, as the cold shooting which stymied them in the first half returned in force at a point where consistent buckets were their most vital need.
“We didn’t have the urgency we needed defensively to get stops,” Hurley said. “Mentally we might have worn down as they were having success. We didn’t handle adversity to lock down.”
Most of the struggles during Saturday night’s contest against Colorado can be elementarily explained through acknowledging how little the team has played in the past month.
After three straight wins, including a quality victory on the road against Creighton, Arizona State battled all the way in a 66-65 loss to a fine San Francisco Dons team that is now 15-2.
For a team that was so far off course to begin the season, the Sun Devils were visibly beginning to right the ship. And that’s precisely when COVID-19 torpedoed the season.
In all, the Sun Devils have had six games either postponed or rescheduled since that game against San Francisco on Dec. 19. But with all caveats and qualifications laid out for their poor showing tonight, Graham wasn’t keen on playing the excuse card after the loss on Saturday night.
“The more we play the better prepared we will be,” Graham said. “It’s nobodies fault. Covid, it’s damaging the whole world. We just got to play through it.”
Despite the stoppages, which doesn’t involve just postponing games but also team practices and workouts, the Sun Devils shored up several of their deficient areas against the Buffaloes.
For a team that has struggled with turnover issues and free-throw shooting, both were strengths against Colorado. The Sun Devils were a sub-70 percent free-throw shooting team, but shot 80 percent from the line and only turned the ball over eight times, tied for their lowest total on the season.
At halftime, Arizona State’s power forward from 2002-2005 Ike Diogu was honored with his jersey number being retired and hung in the rafters among other Sun Devil legends. During his time in Tempe, Diogu was Pac-10 Player of the Year in his junior season and averaged over 20 points per game.
It was a simultaneous callback to the career of one of the best to dress in the maroon and gold and a reminder of what this modern-day Sun Devil roster is missing.
For the better part of the last three seasons, this program has lacked a consistent presence near the basket. This roster plenty of candidates, but none have materialized on a nightly basis. As a result, the team lives and dies with its outside shooting, which is worse now than it has ever been under Hurley.
“The games we have had the most success is when we are intense on defense,” Hurley noted. “It’s a team that’s struggled to score, I haven’t had a team in my time here that’s struggled this much to score the ball.”
Players like Marreon Jackson, who missed each of his three 3-point attempts on Saturday night, or Luther Muhammad, who is shooting 9 for 50 this season from behind the arc, were brought in to give the Sun Devils a consistent scoring option from long-range.
With their struggles, most games are left up to whether or not another transfer, guard DJ Horne, can get hot enough from distance to sustain a sputtering offense. On this night, he could not, shooting 1 for 5 on his 3-point attempts on his way to nine points.
Arizona State has lost three of their first four games in Pac-12 conference play. In program history, there have been worse starts against their conference opponents. But when the score of these games are factored in, and the disparity between where Arizona State is at and their opponents.
This program has never suffered three losses of 15 or more points by January since the conference expanded a decade ago. Ownership is being taken, which is a credit to players and coaches who do have the excuse of a raging pandemic repeatedly interrupting their season, but solutions have yet to be found.
It is not a lost season, and even if it was. It’s hard to completely blame the coaching staff, which has had to learn each other and its players behind masks and in virtual meetings far more than they would like.
But other teams have found ways to make it work. To this point, Arizona State has not. It will be a short turnaround to find if there is any inkling of improvement as the Sun Devils will play host to Utah on Monday afternoon in a game rescheduled from Jan. 13.