ASU Basketball Midseason Report

With last Sunday’s 56-46 victory over Harvard, Arizona State successfully wrapped up their non-conference slate. The win capped off a topsy-turvy non-conference schedule, which saw the Sun Devils (8-5 overall) endure multiple lineup changes, tough losses, and a new style of play. For the Sun Devils, the focus now shifts to the Pac-12 season, which tips off Sunday at No. 8 Arizona.

With the first half of the season in the rearview mirror, we’ll take a look back at the major storylines of the season’s first half and offer our projection for conference play.

New-look lineup

Heading into the season, it was fully expected this year’s squad would take some time to gel. With seven newcomers on the roster, the learning curve was expected to be steeper than usual. This might explain the musical-chairs approach employed by coach Herb Sendek early in the season. He used various lineup combinations – including four different starting lineups – while he tried to pinpoint a rotation that worked.

However, if the last two games are any indication, Sendek may have finally settled on a rotation heading into conference play. Junior college transfers Savon Goodman and Roosevelt Scott were moved into the starting lineup, while Gerry Blakes, another JUCO newcomer, slid over to the point guard spot.

The results have been impressive -- especially on the boards and the defensive end. ASU’s new-look lineup has outrebounded their opponents 83-57 over the two-game stretch. They have also held opponents to a mere 50 points per game on 32.7 percent from the field, while forcing 17 turnovers per contest.

The new-look lineup also passes the eye test. The current starting five brings a mix of athleticism and scrappiness that is typically not associated with ASU basketball. On offense, the Sun Devils have been less reliant on the three-pointer and have scored more consistently off the dribble and in transition. That’s not to say the offense has looked pretty during this transition. In fact, the offense has looked out-of-sorts at times in the last few games. However, the rebounding and defensive potential of this new unit gives ASU a reason to be cautiously optimistic about the possibilities of this season.

The Goodman effect

Many of the newcomers have made substantial contributions early in the season, but nobody has made a bigger impact than Savon Goodman. Due to transfer rules, Goodman was not eligible until mid-December, but he has instantly made his presence known on both sides of the ball. Through four games, he is averaging a team-high 15.8 points and 8 rebounds per game.

More importantly the rugged 6-foot-6 power forward has changed the complexion of this Arizona State team. He brings athleticism, toughness and a defensive-minded approach to the Sun Devils – all attributes that were noticeably lacking before his arrival. However, the most impressive feature of Goodman’s game is his motor. His high-energy play has created a number of easy scoring opportunities off put-backs and transition baskets.

Goodman’s presence has also enabled Sendek to play a more traditional lineup with two post players, something the coach has been reluctant to do in previous seasons. With Goodman consistently improving, it has been difficult to take him off the floor. As a result, junior Willie Atwood, who had started the first eleven games of the season, was recently benched in favor of Goodman. And senior Jonathan Gilling has also seen his playing time decrease significantly since Goodman became eligible.

Revolving point guards

The point guard position has been in flux since the beginning of the season. Sendek has seemingly exhausted every option at his disposal in search for a guard that could effectively run the offense.

Sendek started the season with freshman Tra Holder, who is the only “true” point guard on this year’s roster. Holder showed flashes of potential early on, but does not appear ready to be a steady contributor quite yet. He has struggled to take care of the ball and his confidence looks questionable at times. A few games into the season, Holder lost the starting job to Kodi Justice, another freshman.

Justice, a combo guard, seemed comfortable running the point and was definitely an upgrade from the perimeter. However, he also had issues taking care of the ball and simply did not possess the lateral quickness to stay in front of opposing point guards. Sendek even tried sophomore Chance Murray at the point. Murray, who is more of a shooting guard, took better care of the ball but never looked completely comfortable running the offense.

Then, in a surprising move, Sendek moved Gerry Blakes from shooting guard to point guard before the Detroit game. Blakes is the best on-ball defender of the four options, but the offense has looked stagnant with him at the point. However, he is the most capable scorer off the dribble, and as long as he can take care of the ball, he may give the Sun Devils the best chance of competing in Pac-12 play.

Steady play of Jacobsen and McKissic

Despite the point guard position being a source of concern, Sendek has had the luxury of leaning on a couple of returning starters in Eric Jacobsen and Shaquielle McKissic.

Jacobsen, a junior post player, spent the offseason transforming his body and his game. The results have been impressive. He is one of the most improved players in the conference and has been equally effective on both sides of the ball. On the season, Jacobsen is averaging 10.3 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks per game, while shooting a ridiculous 67.1 percent from the field.

McKissic, one of three seniors on ASU’s roster, surprisingly got off to a slow start this season. However, the dynamic wing has come on strong in recent weeks. In the last five games, McKissic has averaged 14 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 2.4 steals per contest. However, McKissic’s greatest contribution is his steadying presence and leadership on a squad that features so many newcomers.

Poor play in close matchups

One alarming trend throughout this season is Arizona State’s inability to close out games. The Sun Devils are 0-4 in games decided by five points or less. In fact, the Devils’ five losses have been by a combined 17 points.

On one hand, Arizona State has been competitive enough to have a chance to win every game this season. On the other hand, the Sun Devils have failed each and every time they have played in a close matchup.

If the Sun Devils want to be competitive in the Pac-12, they must learn how to close out these types of games. Taking better care of the ball, executing on the offensive end, and making free throws down the stretch would be a good start.

Pac-12 Outlook

This may be the deepest and most athletic team in the Sendek era. If the newcomers continue to progress at this rate, Arizona State could be the surprise team of the conference. However, considering the Sun Devils’ inexperience, it’s unlikely that everything comes together for the Devils to make a miraculous run in the second half of the season. However, don’t be surprised to see this team compete at a high level and have a respectable showing in conference play.

At the outset of the season, I predicted this team would finish 7th in the Pac-12 – and I’m not wavering at this juncture. However, the parity within the conference truly makes it a tough call. It wouldn't be surprising to see this team finish anywhere from 4th to 10th in the conference. After the top three teams (Arizona, Utah, and Washington), there isn’t much separation between the rest of the conference.


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