Nobody actually "likes" playing defense growing up. Kids don't usually rush out to the playground blacktops in order to work on their defensive skills. At least most of them don't. For Felix, defense has always been a point of pride, something that he pushed himself to become better at even before arriving in Tempe and starring for the defensive-minded Herb Sendek. After struggling to find his niche on the team in the previous two seasons, Felix has finally found his comfort zone and it all started with his renewed commitment to playing hard-nosed defense.
"Actually in high school and when I was in junior college defense for me was like my bread and butter," said Felix on Wednesday when addressing the media. "That was something I knew for a fact that I was good at and would work on in the offseason. And coming to ASU, just knowing I would be playing against pros and big-time players, I took it upon myself to lock-in and take ownership of it. At the end of the day, defense is what wins games."
Through the team's first 17 games, the Sun Devils (14-3, 3-1) are allowing a paltry 63.5 points per game as they've jumped out to their best record since the 2008-09 season, when Arizona State last qualified for the NCAA Tournament. To his credit, Felix, who is averaging 1.7 steals and 1.4 blocks per game, has drawn the primary responsibility of defending the opposing team's most potent scoring threat, and has held his own.
In ASU's disappointing 68-65 loss to Oregon last Sunday, Felix turned the Ducks' E.J Singler into a near non-factor, forcing the talented wingman into 1-9 shooting and a pedestrian 7 points.
"I've always loved to play defense," he said. "Defense, I think, is one of the best parts of my game. I just think during that game I had a job and it wasn't to be a scorer, it was to be a lock down defender so I just did what my team needed me to do.
"I know there's going to be nights when my shot isn't going to fall so, definitely, defense is something I take pride in. It's something you can make sure each and every game that you're going one hundred percent at. It's a blessing for me to be a defensive player and to start my offense with defense. I mean, defense wins games and I just went out there and did what I had to do."
Thankfully for the Sun Devils, it seems most nights Felix's shot is falling for him and he's impacting the game on both ends of the floor. So far this season the Phoenix native is averaging 15.1 points and 8.4 rebounds per contest and has scored in double figures 16 times, tied for most in the Pac-12.
A major contributing factor to the team's, and Felix's, improvement on defense has been Coach Sendek's willingness to allow the Sun Devils to play more, if not nearly entirely, man-to-man defense so far in 2012-13. After playing in an effective, albeit not always player-friendly, zone defense for the better part of the last two seasons, the Sun Devils have changed their defensive philosophy nearly overnight and the benefits have been huge.
"It definitely has helped us out a lot," remarked Felix. "It puts Jordan in a position to protect the basket more and to be more effective on defense. It puts quicker guys in position to guard the basketball more and myself just to get easy steals and get more hands on balls and get out and run. Our defense fuels our offense.
"We knew right away that it was going to be effective just because of our personnel. With Jahii being the quickest point guard in the Pac-12 and with Jordan being 7'2" and me and my athletic ability, I think they definitely knew how effective it was going to be right away."
Of course, having an imposing presence in the lane like Jordan Bachynski has sure helped the Sun Devils become a more aggressive, risk-taking defensive team. Arizona State currently ranks third in the nation with 128 blocked shots (7.5 per game) with Bachynski leading the charge. The junior big man has been on a tear through the season's first half, erasing shots at a blistering rate. Bachynski currently has recorded 76 blocks on the year, already surpassing Eric Moreland's total from last season (69) when he led the conference in blocked shots.
"It's fun to watch him," said Felix with a smile. "Just like when we played Colorado, I actually thought he was going to get dunked on but to see him get that big block on the baseline was definitely a game-changing play. Just to watch him progress over the years and to see his demeanor now is terrific, just to see what kind of player he's become."
"It definitely makes it a lot easier playing defense with Jordan behind me but it still comes down to just guarding the ball. I mean, Jordan can only do so much; he can't save us all the time."
Rivalry Week While just two weeks into the conference season, it's no question that the Sun Devils have been one of the surprise teams, putting the Pac-12 on notice by winning three of their first four games against conference foes, while a chance at remaining undefeated just slipped away in the closing minutes of a tightly-contested game against Oregon on the road last Sunday. Despite that though, ASU will have another opportunity to make a statement on Saturday as the seventh ranked Arizona Wildcats visits Wells Fargo Arena.
"I definitely think we're at a good spot right now," said Felix and the rivalry game. "Being able to play this UofA game with the group of guys we got is going to make it very exciting and makes it more comfortable for me, just to know that I have dudes out there that I can trust. Knowing that we all can go out there and just with each other and for each other.
"This being my last year and Ruslan's last year and also Chris' last year, I think it's very important for us seniors to set the tone for our team and go out there and get the job done."
One of the key match-ups of the game will be battle between Felix and Arizona's Solomon Hill. The senior forward enters the game averaging 13.6 points and 5.4 rebounds per contest, pacing the Wildcat attack. While no strangers to each other, Felix insists he's up for the challenge and expects to face the UA wingman early and often on Saturday.
"Oh yeah, I'm, already planning on guarding Solomon Hill," remarked Felix. "It'll definitely be a good match-up. We're both big wings. We're both aggressive players and kind of have a similar game so I'll definitely be watching some film on him just to brush up on some of his moves and what his tendencies are, but it'll be a good match-up.
"It definitely fires me up. I have a tremendous opportunity ahead of me this Saturday. Not just that but playing in the game against Arizona because they have great guards, great bigs. But just going against a player like Solomon Hill, I mean, obviously he's an NBA-type player so I've just got to be ready."
Fresh in the minds of both teams and their respective fan bases is last year's wild and unpredictable ASU victory, one that lessened the sting of a disappointing season for the Sun Devils and ultimately kept the Wildcats out of the NCAA Tournament. Despite that win and his team's recent success against its rival - Arizona State has won seven of the last 11 games against Arizona, including three of the last five in Tempe - Felix doesn't expect any of the past results to influence the way either team will fare on Saturday.
"Last year was last year," he said. "I man, it was a good game between us but we have a different team. They have a different team and new players. This year is definitely going to be a battle between both teams. We're both top teams in the Pac-12 so it's definitely going to be a forty minute battle. It's going to come down to little things like rebounding, 50-50 plays and free throws."
The last time the Sun Devils knocked off a team ranked as high as seventh was 2008 when ASU downed Stanford in overtime, 72-68. Saturday's contest has already been announced as a sellout and likely will be a very mixed and energized atmosphere, something Felix says he's looking forward to.
"That's exciting, man," he exclaimed. "Playing in front of a sold-out crowd, I think anybody would be excited to do this because when you're on a big stage people are going to be watching. I think our gym holds, what, 12,000, so it's going to be a battle. Everybody's going to come out play. Everybody's going to haves their kicks on, laced up, ready to go."
"I think it's key for us to keep our emotions in check because we don't want to get any technicals or anything like that. But it's going to be an emotional game, I can tell you that, just because of the atmosphere, the crowd and just the fact that it's ASU-UofA, emotions are going to be high. I mean, I can't control myself sometimes during this game."