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Future of Arizona State Basketball : Hell or Redemption for the Sun Devils?

This Pac-12 conference play will set the future narrative of the program.

NCAA Basketball: Central Arkansas at Arizona State Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona State Sun Devils are done with their non-conference schedule for the 2016-17 season and the results match their record: pretty average. 7 wins, 6 losses and a bag full of dynamics going opposite ways.

Remember the state of the Sun Devils a year ago? Bobby Hurley’s first couple months created high hopes into the sky thanks to a 10-3 non-conference slate with a handful of marquee wins. North Carolina State, Creighton, Texas A&M, UNLV as well as Stephen F. Austin and UC-Bakersfield, both qualified for the March Madness.

In 2016, as of today, ASU only good win happened on the road to San Diego State.

The rest leaves us wondering what the Sun Devils are made of. Eviscerated by #1 Kentucky and #18 Purdue. Defeated by solid-to-strong mid-majors in Northern Iowa, Davidson and New Mexico State.

However, the loss to #9 Creighton at the Wells Fargo Arena was relatively good and (kind of) showed progression in this team. But there are so many aspects in this year’s Arizona State team that needs to be erased in order to compete at the highest level.

Michael J. Wilson already assessed the state of the Sun Devils going into Pac-12 schedule, and it is not particularly encouraging for ASU fans. Now, let’s try to focus on what is to be expected in the next couple months for Arizona State on the court.

What A First Stretch of Games.

Between Dec. 30th and Jan. 22nd, Arizona State is going to face seven Pac-12 teams and there is a strong possibility they could lose all SEVEN of those. The schedule is not kind to the Sun Devils and it prevents them from setting any dynamic all the way through February.

Well, ASU was not particularly playing on any specific dynamic at the end of non-conference play. The performance against Creighton could rather be considered as a bright spot, but it does not go further.

Look at the beginning of Pac-12 schedule and tell me where you see 2 or 3 wins :

8-4 Stanford (Away)

9-3 California (Away)

10-3 Colorado (Home)

9-3 Utah (Home)

11-2 Arizona (Away)

13-0 #2 UCLA (Away)

13-0 #23 USC (Away)

A trip to the Bay is always tricky and it is not a gift to launch the conference slate in Northern California. Stanford has proven to be difficult to confront so far this year while California remains one of the most talented, competent team in the Pac-12. Splitting the series is feasible, but ASU has to improve if it wants to win on the opening weekend.

Bobby Hurley could also snag a win against the Rockies schools. No, he needs to earn (at least) a win. Games against Colorado and Utah takes place in Tempe and both teams are within reach for the Sun Devils.

Two scenarios could be in play:

  1. Two or more wins and some kind of momentum is building.
  2. Less than two wins and hell is patiently awaiting.

Indeed, the worse part of the whole year is coming after these two series of games. Arizona State has to travel 90 minutes down the I-10 to Tucson before driving westward for a terribly frightening weekend in Los Angeles.

Arizona, UCLA and USC. All three schools are nationally ranked and play the conference’s best basketball as of late. One win (preferably against the Wildcats) would be considered a success, but how likely is that?

What Does Defense Mean?

It is pretty unsettling that a Bobby Hurley-coached team is not performing well in defense. Last year, Arizona State struggled mightily in the paint because of a lack of talent, athleticism and size. It remains an issue in 2016, even if it is less highlighted.

Partly because the perimeter defense is considerably worse today compared to last year.

Creighton and Purdue shot above .500 behind the 3-point line on 25+ attempts. Same story for Northern Iowa and New Mexico State, as both went above .400 shooting behind the arc. Kentucky did not have to shoot particularly well from distance; the reason is the Wildcats completely crushed the Sun Devils inside, as well as on fast-break.

Six teams went over 80 points scored against Arizona State, and four of them broke the 95-point bar. The lone win was over The Citadel in a game ASU scored 127 points, the second-highest total of program history, but surrendered 110 points in the meantime.

The wide-open, run-and-gun style on offense has caught pretty well; the same thing cannot be said for the defense. According to Sports-Reference database:

Arizona State’s offense: 82.4 points score per game (40th of 351 D1 teams)

Arizona State’s defense: 81.7 points allowed per game (328th of 351 D1 teams)

The blue-collar identity attached to Bobby Hurley’s philosophy was remarquable last year and held the defense together. It is not a good idea to speak too soon, but it did not show during conference play, the Sun Devils are doomed.

The UCLA game at Pauley Pavilion on Jan. 19th, against the second-best offensive D1 squad, could turn into a bloodbath. Literally.

That’s why the first two conference series of the season are crucial. If Arizona State do not build a positive dynamic ahead of the games in Los Angeles, the soul of the Sun Devils could well be crushed for the rest of the schedule. It may not happen if ASU can rely on productive notes collected within the first two weeks.

Stanford and California are low-scoring teams. Holding them down on the scoreboard to their season averages, while the offensive side keeps piling points, could be the recipe of success. Colorado, maybe, would fit the same mold.

Hell or Redemption?

This is the tough question, but it seems there is no in-between situation.

Even a perfectly average season, ending with 16-15 overall record, would feel like a relative disappointment after the hopes built last season and the progression a lot of people had predicted. But to reach this record, Arizona State would have to go 9-9 during Pac-12 play and the performance level of the Sun Devils do not indicate this kind of scenario.

Not at all. Splitting the conference schedule would actually be considered as a pretty big success at this point of the year.

For a school proudly honoring a devil as its mascot, Hell would be quite the irony. Unfortunately, it is not a distant reality. Most of the games will either be blowout losses or close games. If those close games go the wrong direction in the majority of them, a 5-13 or 4-14 conference record might not be impossible to reach, bringing the overall record well under 15 wins.

In the meantime, the luck factor could also go in ASU’s favor and reward the Sun Devils’ toughness with 8 or 9 league wins (10 wins if madness is involved at some point). The overall would then be evened after a strong Pac-12 campaign. Redemption is not off the table, partly because the Pac-12 conference is one of the most dense conference of the country. You don’t much to make a significant leap, but, as you can guess, it goes both ways.

Bobby Hurley founds itself in a tough place: the success (or lack thereof) will dictate the narrative around Arizona State for the rest of his tenure. Win and get the train rolling. Lose and get buried by the incoming pressure.