With its 89-85 loss to Washington Saturday at Wells Fargo Arena, Arizona State is in the same 1-4 hole to start Pac-12 play that it found itself last season under then-coach Herb Sendek, and revealing some of the same limitations.
Huskies senior guard Andrew Andrews entered the game leading the Pac-12 with 20.1 points per game and carved the Sun Devils up, scoring 30 points on 12 of 17 shooting and dishing out 12 assists. ASU tried to defend Andrews with multiple players and in a variety of ways but had very little success no matter what it did. It's the same problem the Sun Devils had last season against athletic scoring guards, including in their opening game Pac-12 Tournament loss in which USC overcame a 14-point second half deficit to seal Sendek's fate.
ASU tried defending perimeter ball screens for an Andrews in a variety of ways, but no matter what it did it was unsuccessful. When the Sun Devils hard hedged with the screener's defender, often senior center Eric Jacobsen, Andrews was often able to attack the hedge and draw a foul. It contributed to Jacobsen playing just 18 minutes, saddled with foul trouble in a game in which he managed just six points and four rebounds.
Other times, ASU sagged under the ball screens, but Andrews was able to either shoot it off the bounce effectively, split the seam, or pass it over the top into the paint for a high quality shot by a teammate.
Chasing Andrews over the top of flat ball screens with a trailer on the hip wasn't effective either. When the Huskies went to spread sets that forced ASU's guards to try to manage Andrews in isolation, things only got worse.
"He's so dangerous because he's got great feel and he plays with great pace and he makes great reads really quick," Hurley said of Andrews. "He knows how to use his body very well to get open, even when you do defend him well. And it's hard to be aggressive with ball screens with him because he goes into the defender in the ball screen and creates the contact. So it's hard to be aggressive, and then if you're not aggressive in the ball screen, he's downhill coming at you going to the rim. He really knows how to play and has got a really, really good future beyond this season."
Holder's been one of the best offensive guards in the Pac-12 early this season and remarkably improved on that end of the floor, but his defense is still very much a work in progress. It was Holder who couldn't stop USC"s Julian Jacobs last season in that Pac-12 Tournament loss, and there have been other instances of point guards shredding ASU, certainly. As valuable as he's become on the offensive end, Justice doesn't have the lateral quickness to stick with someone like Andrews, and has to play off the ball on defense to be effective. Blakes has been lauded for his defensive upside by Hurley at various times this season, but stood no match for Andrews' elusiveness with the ball, often looking unbalanced and out of position.
Experience and additional reps will help Holder improve defensively, but the Sun Devils need to see that development expedited in a manner similar to what he's been able to accomplish on offense this season if they're going to be able to fulfill NCAA Tournament aspirations. The Pac-12 is loaded this season, with a number of point guards capable of threatening ASU's defensive integrity.
Fortunately for the Sun Devils, while their 1-4 start to the Pac-12 is identical to last season, the circumstances are very different. ASU was able to climb out of that early hole last season and finish 9-9 in the league before the USC loss in the Pac-12 Tournament, but a RPI of 102 and Strength of Schedule of 64 made a NCAA Tournament at-large bid an impossibility.
This season, if ASU could somehow similarly come back from a bad start to conference play, its chances of parlaying that into a Tournament bid are much more reasonable. As of Sunday, the Pac-12 has the best conference SOS nationally and second-best RPI. Even at 1-4 and 11-7 overall, ASU is No. 51 in the RPI with a No. 16 SOS. Even so, eight conference teams have a better RPI, so this is going to be an absolutely gauntlet of a league.
There's potential to see the Pac-12 get a record seven teams into the NCAA Tournament, which is a great opportunity for the Sun Devils. They've put themselves in position for this with a good measure of success in the toughest non-conference schedule they've had in recent memory. But it's going to probably take at least a .500 record in the Pac-12 do to it, so the Sun Devils will probably have to win no fewer than eight of their next 13 games, and do so in a league with eight Top-50 RPI teams. They'll also have to defend the ball on the perimeter a lot better.
But that wasn't the only issue that reemerged from last season. A mediocre free throw shooting team last season that finished No. 10 in the league and cost itself at least several wins as a result. It has improved to better than 70 percent from the stripe this season and did a great job closing out Washington State Thursday by not missing a free throw in the second half and making 28 of 33 overall. Saturday though, the Sun Devils regressed against the Huskies and made just 16 of 29, which in and of itself with the difference in the game, particularly when compared with Washington's 12 of 16 (11 of 14 in the second half).
ASU started the Pac-12 slate with more wiggle room this season after what they were able to accomplish in November and December, but things are getting tighter in a hurry, at least as it relates to its NCAA Tournament chances.