Bobby Hurley era begins: Arizona State basketball season primer

What can fans expect on offense and defense style wise from Arizona State under Bobby Hurley and with regard to the personnel he has to work with, which includes four returning starters?

The Bobby Hurley era at Arizona State begins with a 5:30 p.m. game against Sacramento State Friday at Wells Fargo Arena in Tempe. Here's a primer on what you need to know to get ready for the start of season. 

Offensive Style

Hurley prefers an offensive style that opens and spaces the floor by perimeter utilization of post players in a lot of quick high screen actions. One of the two primary sets the Sun Devils will utilize is the so-called Horns Offense, which is aptly named because the way in which players are aligned on the floor resembles the head of horned cattle. The point guard is centered atop the floor outside the 3-point line and the team's center and power forward generally start around the high post at the corners of the key or slightly more toward the 3-point line. The team's two wings are positioned outside the 3-point line, one in each corner, as the horns of the head. 

The Horns offense -- also called A-set by some -- is used by Hurley's college coach at Duke, Mike Krzyzewski, as well as a number of other prominent college coaches including Tom Izzo at Michigan State. Stanford uses Horns quite extensively under Johnny Dawkins, with a reliance on its bigs perimeter orientation and shot making. It's also common in the international game, where skilled interior players permeate the game, and some NBA teams incorporate Horns elements, including David Blatt of the Cleveland Cavs -- who has an international background -- and Rick Carlisle of the Dallas Mavericks. 

The Horns set is an offense that flourishes with mobile, skilled big men and high level shooters of the basketball. It uses a lot of quick-action screens -- often two in quick succession -- around the top of the 3-point line designed to stress help defenders and lead to breakdowns in a way that allows for post players to roll to the basket uncovered. 

ASU's also going to use a lot of open post flow offense, what it calls its Flow Set. This is a motion based system that looks very free form and is to some degree, but it's situationally reactive to how an opponent is defending it and includes a number of specific plays out of the basic ideology. As with the Horns set, this is an open-post offense that heavily relies on post player mobility and skill, with a lot of off-ball screens and dribble handoffs around the full perimeter. There's an ample amount of cutting and flashing through the paint, but very little back-to-the-basket post-up play in this offense as with the Horns set. Various Flow Set offenses are the most common structure in today's NBA game, with Steve Kerr's Golden State Warriors among other teams using it at a very high level. 

Defensive Style

There's a big contrast to the preferred style of defense Hurley will use when compared with former ASU coach Herb Sendek. In the Pac-12 and really college basketball more broadly, there's a lot of what's referred to as Pack-Line Defense. This is the defense preferred by Sendek, Arizona coach Sean Miller and others in the Pac-12, and was a staple of Dick Bennett and Tony Bennett at Washington State, and now at Virginia. 

The Pack Line is an imaginary arc a few feet inside of the college 3-point line that proponent coaches use as a teaching tool, even going as far as to tape it onto the floor. This style defense is designed to have non on-ball defenders sag to inside of the pack line in order to clog up interior passing lanes, and prevent post-entry. Only the ball is pressured heavily in an effort to make the offensive initiator more uncomfortable. 

Teams that use Pack line principles are more inclined to sag under or wall ball screens as opposed to chasing over them. There is no attempt to deny the ball from being passed to another player on the perimeter, and a lot of preemptive help on dribble penetration in order to force passes earlier. Coaches who run Pack Line defenses want to ideally force a lot of contested perimeter shots they close out. 

Pack Line defensive teams tend to sacrifice offensive rebounding for transition defense. When fans want teams to play faster on offense, what they may not realize it's a team's defensive philosophy that usually determines pace of play. Teams that play Pack Line and committed transition defense are naturally going to play in fewer possession games as a byproduct of their system. 

Hurley's preferred defensive approach is much more of an extended man-to-man offense, with off-ball players being denied the ball out onto the floor beyond the 3-point line. So not only is Hurley's ideology more open on offense, but also on defense. This is a style of play that while may be more pleasing to the eye from a free form standpoint, also presents a lot of challenges. Pack Line defense and a greater commitment to transition defense are talent-disparity mitigating. But teams with less talent and athleticism can also be more exposed, with greater back door, straight line drive and post susceptibility on defense. 

The Sun Devils will try to be more disruptive out onto the floor under Hurley, and it's a defense that looks more energetic, and indeed at times frenetic, with a desire to generate transition offense via defensive turnovers, which is how games tend to get sped up and look a lot more open. It's something fans will love when it's working and be frustrated by when it's not, just as any system. 

Style of play questions To be answered 

Do the Sun Devils have enough post players, and enough skill with their center and power forwards to handle Hurley's Horns and Flow sets effectively from possession to possession and over the full course of a game? 

Does ASU have the shot making capability to really operate the offense at a high level? These offensive systems require point guard 3-point shooting success to optimize scheme, as well as positions 2-5. 

Is the perimeter length and athleticism sufficient for the Sun Devils to play an extended man-to-man defense and is there enough depth to help facilitate it? 

Personnel Overview

Returning Starters

Eric Jacobsen -- ASU's starting senior center and perhaps its most important overall player, Jacobsen has more experience than anyone on the team and is one of its smartest members. At 6-foot-10, Jacobsen worked on losing weight and getting a lot leaner in the off-season in order to have greater stamina and mobility. He's a very savvy position defender, with moderate skill level on the offensive end. Confidence is the biggest variable with Jacobsen. He averaged 8.3 points and 5.9 rebounds as a junior, but showed the capability of being a significantly more productive player but can be prone to lapses of tenacity and/or determination to put his imprint on games. How well is Jacobsen going to handle being used much more on the perimeter and what does that do to the integrity of ASU at both ends? 

Savon Goodman -- An athletic junior at 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds, Goodman was arguably the best player on the floor for the Sun Devils in many games last season and a regular starter in Pac-12 play. He averaged 11.2 points and 7.6 rebounds and is an intense competitor who scores on short drives and clean up opportunities around the basket. He's a good rebounder for his size at both ends and is a multi-positional defender who leads both through how vigorously he plays and the way in which he vocally engages with teammates on and off the floor. Not known as a shooter, does Goodman have the perimeter skill to broaden his game out and how does his style fit with Hurley's approach? 

Gerry Blakes -- In his first season of major college basketball, the 6-foot-4 Blakes averaged 11.1 points and 4.2 rebound as a junior starter. He had somewhat of a roller coaster adjustment to playing at ASU, as he was asked to play point guard early in the season but was turnover prone and not a court general. As the season played out, ASU coaches moved Blakes to his more natural position off the ball and he had a number of very impressive performances. The southpaw is a natural scorer of the basketball off the dribble, going for more than 20 points in five games last season. But he ran hot and cold. Is he going to become more consistent with his energy and output at both ends of the floor and make good decisions consistently? 

Tra Holder -- Significant improvement from the beginning of the season to the end marked Holder's freshman campaign in 2014-15. A crafty 6-foot-1 point guard whose strength is his ability to break defenses down off the dribble and create scoring opportunities for teammates, Holder finished the season fifth in the Pac-12 in league games with a 4.2 assist average. A hard-working and committed player and teammate, Holder has worked hard in the off-season to become a better perimeter shooter and defender, as well as to continue to get stronger and leaner. Is he going to be able to knock down outside shots off the bounce at enough of a rate to force defenses to chase over on screens and really open up the offense? Can he be more of a pest guarding the ball on the perimeter? 

Returning Reserves

Willie Atwood -- A 6-foot-7 power forward, Atwood struggled in his first season in Tempe under Sendek. The senior wasn't used to not being a feature component of an offense or having actions initiated for him. He's a mid-post short driver who has a knack for getting to the foul line, and can also step out and shoot on the perimeter. Playing without the ball was a challenge for Atwood last year, but will he thrive in a new system? 

Kodi Justice -- Versatile and lanky at 6-foot-5 and 190 pounds, Justice spent some time last year playing point guard before suffering a broken bone in his foot on Jan. 25, just days after a 16 point season-high effort against Cal. Defensively, Justice isn't likely to be able to guard point guards at this level and his quick catch and shoot ability makes him a better wing candidate at this level, but one who can handle the ball and is skilled for a wing. 

Eligible Newcomers 

Andre Spight -- A combo-guard and potent scorer of the ball at South Plains College in Texas, Spight averaged 14.8 points and 3.6 assists. The California native loves to shoot the 3-point ball and can get very hot when doing so but also go through droughts. He has to make sure that doesn't impact his overall focus and intensity and also that he doesn't force bad shots. Spight could play behind Holder as the team's back-up point guard, but Blakes is also a candidate. 

Obinna Oleka -- A big-framed combo-forward at 6-foot-7 and 220 pounds, Oleka has a size, athleticism and skill set that fits well with the ASU system. He can really shoot the ball for a bigger player on the perimeter, and is a good transition athlete for his size. A junior, Oleka didn't play at the junior college level last season but averaged 25.6 points and 13.6 rebounds in five games in 2013-14. Oleka is talented but will coaches be able to count on him to show that by playing productively with consistency? 

Maurice O'Field -- Transition athleticism is really the staple of O'Field, a 6-foot-5 sophomore wing who averaged 15.8 points and 5.0 rebounds at Midland Junior College in Texas last season. O'Field is a run and jump athlete who can finish above the rim on the break, but has to show continued increase of his skill level, especially ball handling and shot making off the bounce, in order to unlock his athletic potential. He should be a good perimeter defender given his length and athleticism, if he commits to it and plays intelligently. 

Andre Adams -- Had surgery for an ACL tear this fall and is out for the season. 

Sitting out the season post-transfer

Shannon Evans -- The starting point guard for Hurley when he was at Buffalo the last two seasons and one of the better players in the league. Evans is extremely quick and can also play off the ball. 

Torian Graham -- An athletic 6-foot-4 wing, Graham has had a circuitous path to ASU and will be a senior next season after sitting out this year. He's got a scorer's mentality and is athletic, not unlike Blakes in terms of style. 

Outlook

The Sun Devils have a very challenging non-conference schedule, which would be difficult in any year but especially when they're working under a new coaching staff with different offensive and defensive schemes and a lot to absorb and implement. Fortunately for Hurley, ASU returns four starters from a team that went 9-9 in the regular season in Pac-12 play last season, so there's reason to believe it can be a very competitive team. It isn't completely out of the question for the Sun Devils to be in the hunt for an at-large NCAA Tournament bid in March, but it's going to take the team coming together relatively quickly and playing at a high level without the inconsistencies that one might expect under a first-year leadership transition. The most likely scenario is ASU wins in the mid-to-high teens and finishes around the middle of the Pac-12, a respectable first-year for Hurley but outside of the NCAAs. But it's not a hard leap from there to a few more wins and Bubble territory if it can come out of the non-conference in pretty good shape. 


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