After watching his team give up 91 points at home against Washington State in a loss on Jan. 29, Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley came into his post-game press conference seething.
The Sun Devils had allowed yet another team to shoot better than 50 percent from the floor. They had already entered the game with by far the worst field goal percentage defense in the Pac-12.
What especially bothered Hurley was how players seemed content to put up big numbers on offense and yet not apply the same care to the defensive end of the court, where ASU has most of its problems. Guards Torian Graham, Tra Holder and Shannon Evans are all among the Top-10 in scoring in the Pac-12, with Graham and Holder No. 2 and No. 3, respectively.
Hurley pointed that out, and how it contrast sharply against the team being last in the Pac-12 in numerous defensive categories including points allowed, at 82.5. As a coach, he was letting his players have a wide berth on the offensive end, but they weren't responding to his defensive requests.
"They (ASU's five starters) are the guys who are out there and the guys who are having good offensive individual seasons," Hurley said after seeing his team lose to the Cougars. "Three guys in the top ten in scoring. Another guy averaging a double-double in conference. They are getting great individual success, but it has to translate into making plays at the right time in games, in key parts of games so that we have a chance to win and that will be the next step for the leadership core."
After that game Hurley revisited the subject with his players. He showed them film of their breakdowns against Washington State. He pointed out the lack of talking and sustained effort on the floor. He told them there was no excuse for not getting back on defense when they weren't oriented around being an offensive rebounding team. He showed them cut-ups of their next opponent, Oregon, one of the better offensive teams in the league and especially at home where they are undefeated.
"We were just saying, 'Can we do a little more?'" Hurley said. "'Can you give a little more? Can we have a little more energy at that end of the floor?' I met with the five starters and let them know where we stood in offensive categories in our conference. We're in the top tier of the league in all those categories, and a majority of the offensive statistics. Can we improve the other end of the floor so we can take a step forward?"
Finally, something appeared to have clicked. The Sun Devils held Oregon to 26 of 62 shooting from the field (41.9 percent) and pushed the Ducks to the brink before losing 71-70 in a game that was closely fought, entertaining, and arguably ASU's best effort of the season.
"After the Washington State game we talked about transition defense," Hurley said. "You can't afford to give up easy baskets. We definitely limited giving up easy baskets for that whole week (in Oregon). I think the communication improved, just talking more, more alert off the ball. We scrambled better, secondary efforts, closeouts, We ran guys off the line at Oregon and made them make multiple passes in possession."
ASU junior guard Kodi Justice said the Sun Devils finally took the message to heart and implemented the things they've been asked to do on defense throughout the season.
"We're better at communicating, we're better at rotations," Justice said. "We know where people need to be and where the trap needs to be. It really comes down to communicating and we're doing a better job of it on the court and it's helping everybody.
"When you can get a stop and know you can score, it makes you want to play harder on defense. The more stops you can get, we're having more fun playing defense right now than I feel like we are on offense."
The Sun Devils blew out Oregon State 81-68 on Saturday, and are now playing some of their best basketball of the season as they take an 11-13 record and 4-7 conference mark into a Wednesday night game against Cal (9:00 p.m. on ESPNU) with a somewhat favorable schedule in the last month of the regular season.
"We have five of our next seven games at home," Justice said. "We know we dealt with the harder part of our schedule early with all the road games. So we have a lot of home games and if we take care of our home we can be a great spot in the Pac-12."
ASU will be looking to avenge an 81-65 loss at Cal on Jan. 1 that was much closer than the final score. The teams were tied with 5:45 left before Cal went on a 20-4 run to end the game.
"When we played at Cal I think it was 61-61 with five minutes left, if we would have made a play here or there it would have changed (the outcome)," Justice said. "But I think our defense has changed tremendously since then. I think we'll have a better chance to win."
Evans playing best ball as Sun Devil
After sitting out last season post-transfer, junior guard Shannon Evans is starting to show more of the talent that propelled a Hurley-coached Buffalo squad to an NCAA berth in 2014-15.
Evans played all 40 minutes at Oregon and finished with a 28 points on 10 of 16 shooting. In the second half in particular he carried the Sun Devils, with 17 points on just eight shot attempts.
"Shannon was as good as he's been all season in two games," Hurley said.
"He's found another gear. Sometimes when you sit out for a year or you're not in shape or dealing with an injury, there's some rust, some things you need getting used to playing live again. His pop in his legs is back."
Though it may have been the best Evans has played as a Sun Devil, it wasn't a surprise to Hurley. Evans averaged 15.4 points and 4.6 assists as a sophomore at Buffalo, earning second-team all-league honors.
"I remember a week in Buffalo he had a triple double in the first game and then he had 34 on the back end," Hurley said.
Evans was most pleased by the fact that his performance, which was followed by 21 points on 12 shots against the Beavers, came against one of ASU's best opponents. He cited a tendency to play below his expectations in big games earlier in his career.
"Just kind of like a mindset that was going on," he said. "Trying to have a killer mindset, always be in attack mode."