For the early months of the nascent Natasha Adair tenure with the Sun Devil women’s basketball program, the top story has been the team’s performance on the floor and how closely it reflected Adair’s stated goals prior to the season.
“Our formula is defend, rebound, run, and score,” Adair said before her first game as the head coach against Northern Arizona.
It’s not a nebulous blueprint. Adair told us up front her desire to continue the Sun Devil tradition of being disciplined and difficult to move around on defense. Then on offense, install that extra gear and get to running.
“My teams score 70-80 points a night and that’s different,” Adair would go on to say. “But also, players want to play in an up-tempo system, fans want to watch an up tempo team, they want to get after it. I think what they’ve really liked is the freedom in which they’re allowed to play.”
At times, that engaging offensive attack has spread its wings. But too often, the defense that is supposed to initiate transition opportunities has not been on the floor.
This past weekend, the story was about the lack of presence on the floor entirely, as the Sun Devils unexpectedly had to forfeit consecutive games against No. 10 Colorado and Utah due to a lack of enough available players.
The games will not be made up, and have been scored as losses as far as the team’s record is concerned.
As a result, the Sun Devils have commenced conference play with a 0-5 record. It’s not the start Adair envisioned for her first tour through the Pac-12.
“With few healthy scholarship players time to heal is our only option,” Adair said earlier this week. “Our plan is to get our team healthy over the course of this week and be ready when we host Arizona Jan. 22.”
With a 7-11 record overall, the Sun Devils have their work cut out for them to claw back into position for the postseason. But this surprise weekend off presents an opportunity to review what can be fairly labeled as a disappointing beginning to the 2022-23 campaign.
Who Couldn’t Play?
Among those ruled out for this weekend’s games were Isadora Sousa, Maggie Besselink, Imogen Greenslade, Morasha Wiggins, and Jaylah Robinson.
Of those players, only Sousa has seen consistent playing time this season with an average of 13.5 minutes per night. But there is a reason team’s carry more than just their starters and second unit. If multiple starters went down, the Sun Devils didn’t have enough depth to replace them and continue playing.
The Pac-12 Conference rules stipulates that at least seven scholarship players must be available for a team to compete. It is unclear at this point whether the Sun Devils will be ready for their next game against Arizona on January 22.
What Needs to be Improved Going Forward?
For years under Charli Turner Thorne, the Sun Devils built their foundation on dependable defense. If the offense wasn’t flowing in its desired state, the Sun Devils normally could play stingy enough on the other end to buy their offense some time to coalesce.
At times this season, that calling card defense has been on the floor. It just hasn’t been there as consistently in the past. There are moments where the cracks in the foundation are apparent, and moments where it crumbles entirely, such as in the 101-69 loss to Stanford.
It is only fair to acknowledge the other two times Stanford has eclipsed 100 points this year, it’s not just the Sun Devils who have been reduced to a sieve against the Cardinal.
Still, through five conference games, the Sun Devils have allowed 80+ points on two other occasions. In an offense still finding its footing in Adair’s up-tempo system, the intensity on defense has to be brought up a noticeable amount to keep the Sun Devils competitive.
The best offense is a great defense, and the Sun Devils have designed their offense to thrive on the fast break, but don’t get enough stops on the defensive side to create such openings. In the half-court, the Sun Devils have not moved the ball well to create open looks, as the team is near the bottom in the nation is assists per game.
Furthermore, the Sun Devils have consistently stood in their own way. The team is tied for last in the Pac-12 in Assist/Turnover ratio (0.81). Add here, subtract there, carry the one, and under the solid line is a record of 7-9 for the season and 0-3 in conference play, even before the forfeitures.
What Happens Next?
There’s a lot still to be determined there. Despite not playing, the Sun Devils certainly did not treat the weekend as a holiday. Players that need to recover had more time, and attention, to do so. The coaching staff, which has been met with a slew of challenges in the first half of the season, likely had more discussions about how to meet them.
This could very well end up being a watershed moment for Adair in her tenure at Arizona State. A time where she took the wheel and guided her program through uncommon circumstances.
Perhaps there are some schematic changes that can transform the defense into a more reliable unit. Emphasis must be put on taking care of the basketball. If they do that and nothing else, the Sun Devils will still look like a new team overnight.
Ahead awaits Arizona. There’s plenty to fix, but the top concern is getting healthy enough to play. Without that, there won’t be a fair chance to gauge how completely her philosophy has been implemented.