Surprisingly, there are no statistics that definitively tell the tale of this frustrating season. There are no glaring statistical deficiencies other than the consistent disparity in the final score, with the Sun Devils coming up on the short end of the stick more often than not.
However, there is still a story to be told by the season's statistics, especially the "in conference" statistics. ASU came out of non-conference play with an unspectacular, but workable 6-3 record. Conference play is where the Devils really came unraveled. Let's take a look at a few of the "in conference" trouble areas in more detail:
§ The Sun Devils were dead last in scoring defense in Pac-10 play. There is no way to sugar coat that statistic, as they gave up an average of 80.3 ppg to conference foes. There is no way to be successful giving up that many points unless you are a prolific offensive team, which ASU is not. The Devils were fifth in the conference in scoring, averaging 73.0 ppg. A team like Arizona can have some success playing this style (they were first in scoring offense and ninth in scoring defense); however, even the Wildcats did not have their usual level of success because of their defensive lapses. A team that does not have superior athletic talent, like ASU, needs to be toward the top of the conference's defensive statistics if it wants to be successful. Not surprisingly, the Sun Devils were ninth in defensive shooting percentages, allowing opponents to shoot 46.9% from the floor.
§ Although the scoring offense was not terrible, the Sun Devils were not efficient on the offensive end of the floor. The Devils shot a low 42.4% in conference play. Once can only imagine what that number would have been had Ike Diogu not shot the ball at over a 50% pace, especially considering that the sophomore attempted 22.5% of ASU's shots in conference play. The overall shooting average indicates that the rest of the team was not hitting their shots on a consistent basis. Most fans would predict that point guard Jason Braxton was a major factor in the low shooting percentage, but JB converted on 43.2% of his shots during Pac-10 games.
§ Rebounding was a glaring weak spot for the Sun Devils. ASU was ninth in the league in rebounding margin, being out-rebounded by their opponents by almost three (2.9) boards per game. So, in addition to poor defense, the Devils did not do a good job of protecting the glass. That combination spells doom for any team.
As stated above, none of these statistics by themselves tell the full tale of the season. However, when taken as a whole, the picture painted is of a team that does not defend well, is inefficient on the offensive end, and does not rebound exceptionally well. In other words, the Devils were not especially good with the ball, when the opponent had the ball, or when the ball was loose. That is not a good recipe for success for any team.
The good news is there is nowhere to go but up and the Devils had to work with eight new players this season. The bad news is that the entire league was young and just about everyone will be returning at least 60% of their starting lineups next season. So, it is safe to say that the Devils will have to improve significantly more in the off-season than their opponents if they want to get out of the conference basement and reach post-season play.
Offensively, ASU needs to find more consistent threats to compliment the steady scoring of Diogu. Steve Moore should follow in Curtis Millage's footsteps and avoid hitting the "JC transfer wall" in the middle of the conference schedule. This will do wonders for ASU's scoring. Additionally, the emergence of Kevin Kruger bodes well for the Devils. His scoring really came on at the end of the season, and he proved that he could provide a nice outside threat when he is on the floor (more on this below). Keith Wooden could also prove to be a nice inside presence when Diogu is on the bench or even along side Ike in the block. Keith showed a variety of post moves and face up shots this season and a productive off-season in the weight room should only improve his contributions next season. Serge Angounou, Tim Pierce, and Bryson Krueger are the X-factors next season. If one of them can provide anywhere near 10 points per game from the small forward position, the Devils' offense should improve tremendously.
To help improve offensive production, ASU's point guards are going to have to do a much better job leading the team and getting the ball to their teammates in a position to score. Jason Braxton struggles because of his inability to shoot the ball from even as close as 10'. Tron Smith is really more of a shooting guard and was turnover prone this season, despite having an opportunity to improve at the point position, especially against zone defenses. Kevin Kruger has a point guard body and an outside shot that will really help Diogu's inside game, but he can be a defensive liability against quicker and/or stronger point guards and is also a questionable playmaker. He does not turn the ball over consistently, but his court vision can leaves much to be desired. All three of these players will most likely see time at point guard next year in addition to whatever junior college player is brought in to help out.
The Devils must also finally figure out how to effectively attack zone defenses. ASU looked lost when teams put multiple defenders around Diogu on the block in various zone schemes. The Devil players must get a better grasp on the passing angles that are effective against different types of zones, what dribble drives work in what situations, where defenders will be positioned when the ball is in certain areas of the floor, and most importantly, how to catch the ball in a position that is a threat to the defense. There were way too many instances when the ball was passively being shuttled from station to station around the perimeter of the zone offense. The players were often catching the ball 4'-6' behind the three point circle, which is not a position from which the player can be a serious threat to hurt the defense. The players need to spend a lot of time watching tape of how other teams effectively attack the 2-3, 3-2, and 1-3-1 zones. They will most likely see these defenses often, unless they can prove they know how to beat them consistently.
Defensively, ASU needs to improve in just about every aspect. The Devils struggled with on-ball defense when playing man-to-man. This highlighted another weakness, rotation within the team's defensive scheme. There were many times when an ASU player was beaten by the ball handler but the help did not come in time to impede the offensive player, resulting in numerous easy shots. Part of the problem is that too many players were playing out of position again this year. ASU did not have a player capable of effectively guarding athletic small forwards. Angounou was not anywhere near 100% and Moore/Hill are too small to guard the taller players. Consequently, these types of players wreaked havoc on ASU's defense.
An aspect that can be more easily fixed is rebounding. The Sun Devils have plenty of athletes to rebound the basketball. Diogu gets his fair share, but someone else really needs to step up and compliment Ike. Wooden is a candidate here after another year in the weight room. Other possibilities are Will Fameni, Chris Low, and a junior college big man if one is brought in. Basically, the Devils simply need to have better fundamentals in blocking out their man and more motivation to go after the ball harder. If these two things can be ingrained in the current players, ASU's rebounding woes should evaporate.
Finally, the coaching must improve. Whoever is brought in to replace Russ Pennell, should have a strong understanding of X's and O's and should also have a passion for teaching in practice. There were too many occasions in which ASU looked lost, the most evident of which were late game situations in which the Devils needed a big bucket. The coaches must be able to teach how to approach different situations during practice, draw up the correct situational plays in game situations, and put the players in the right places to be successful executing the plays. This is much easier said than done, but a high major conference program such as ASU should definitely have multiple coaches that are up to the task. Furthermore, the coaches need to really sit down and define the guiding principles/focus of their system. Give the players some ground rules to grasp onto and run with. It is probable that this has already been done, but it is obvious that it is not working completely. Focused leadership and direction is essential at this time, since the program is at a real crossroads.
Overall, the pieces are in place for this ASU team to be much more competitive in the Pac-10. Nobody, including us, believes that this team will challenge for a conference title in the immediate future; however, post-season play should be expected. The team underachieved this year, and next season will require the team to perform at or above their talent level.
Hoops Season Recap – Part III
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