Hurley searching for defensive improvement on road trip

Arizona State's defense hasn't been up to par in the team's early Pac-12 play this season according to its head coach, and there isn't much margin for error.

After a rough 1-4 start in a hyper-competitive Pac-12, Arizona State has to go on the road this week, starting with a game Thursday night against Cal. 

The Golden Bears will be without leading scorer Tyrone Wallace (15.4 points per game), one of the top scorers in the league, but first-year head coach Bobby Hurley wants the Sun Devils to focus on themselves. That is especially so on the defensive end. 

“Our opponents are too comfortable in their offense and they’re moving the ball too easily,” Hurley said. “We have to get them out of that comfort zone.

“Our game plan has been us. I haven’t really talked a whole lot about Cal. We need to get back to playing the way we need to play in order to be successful. Whatever happens with our opponents, that’s not even in my thoughts right now. We’ve got to focus on getting back on track.”

The Sun Devils aren’t long nor especially athletic when compared with their peers in the Pac-12. There won’t be great ball denial on the perimeter or lock down defense against opposing lead guards. They haven’t defended ball screens well enough, or sealed off the glass as well as their coach would like, either. 

Perimeter athleticism and scoring ability in particular has been a problem for ASU this season, including in the team’s last game, a loss to Washington that included a 30 point effort by Huskies senior guard Andrew Andrews, the top Pac-12 scorer. 

“We keep coming, we keep fighting and that’s all great,” Hurley said. “We’ve got to try and avoid putting ourselves in bad spots to face deficits and do all the things necessary to not have that happen. Our margin isn’t an outstanding margin, defensively especially. We’ve got to be really together very connected on that end of the floor.”

Junior forward Obi Oleka length and versatility could help. He has earned several starts recent and had a double double, with 13 points and 11 rebounds against the Huskies, perhaps his best effort of the season. But Hurley wants more, especially on the defensive end of the floor. 

“Obi with the double-doubles has been great,” Hurley said. “His presence has been good. We’ve got to keep getting his motor right to play every possession at his maximum effort level. That was a problem watching the film, some of our ball screen coverages wasn’t great from our front court guys. It wasn’t just Obi but it was a number of guys so we’ve got to fix that and be more consistent with how we defend those situations.”

Oleka, a 6-foot-7 face up four man who likes to shoot the ball, said he wants to give the coaches what they’re asking of him, especially as a junior college transfer who hasn’t played much the last couple years. 

“It’s a blessing that they recruited me after I was sitting out for a couple years basically and the best thing I can do for them is play hard,” Oleka said. 

The adjustment to playing again and at an even higher level after Oleka sat out last season and played in only a handful of games before being injured in 2013-14 hasn’t been easy. Oleka tweeted out frustration with his play in December before electing to delete it. He said it was a spur of the moment thing he shouldn’t have done. 

“It’s just the speed of the game and how good the players actually are at this level,” Oleka said of the process of adapting. “I just kind of stuck with it and have been doing a little better over time.”

Hurley wants to see continued progress from the Oleka and the rest of his teammates, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, where ASU has given up 94, 89, 81 and 75 points in four conference losses. 

“If we don’t do anything of those things (in terms of playing together smartly), our defense is going to suffer and we’re going to have a hard time winning games,” Hurley said. 

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