Where does Arizona State basketball stand?

By Justin Toscano

No. 16 Arizona State (15-4, 3-4 Pac-12) split this week’s road trip, losing at Stanford on Wednesday before defeating Cal on Saturday. The Sun Devils didn’t do much to answer the concerns that have surrounded them since conference play, so it’s truly difficult to discern where this team stands and if it is close to breaking out of its recent slump.

Here are some of my thoughts:

  • Any road win in conference should be considered a “good” win. But don’t be fooled. This Cal team isn’t good. This Cal team (7-13, 1-6 Pac-12) lost by 27 at home to Central Arkansas and by 25 at home to Portland State. The weird part: The Golden Bears beat Stanford — which is exceeding expectations right now — by three points. Then again, in the five games after that, the closest they came to winning was a 10-point loss. Give the Sun Devils credit. They played well, forced the issue and staved off Cal late in the 81-73 victory. But we need to see more from this team to determine if it can shake the problems it has had since a Dec. 30 loss at Arizona, now the Pac-12’s first-place team.
  • While I don’t believe a win over Cal is enough to quell all concerns, the Sun Devils played with high stakes. Yeah, I said it. On Dec. 30, when ASU was the last undefeated team standing before taking the floor in Tucson, I never thought I’d label Saturday’s game at Haas Pavilion a “must-win.” Yet it was. And it was way too close. ASU’s largest lead was 16 points, but inside eight minutes to go, Cal cut it to four. The Sun Devils responded with two Shannon Evans 3-pointers and another from Remy Martin in the next three minutes of the game. On defense, they managed to get stops while Romello White, De’Quon Lake and Vitaliy Shibel all had four fouls. They avoided disaster. The panic button could’ve been pressed with a loss, but the Sun Devils regained control to split the road trip. Bobby Hurley hadn’t yet beaten Cal since taking the ASU job, but his team picked an important night to help him get that monkey off his back.
  • ASU’s slump has been well-documented, but this seems to be a trend around the country. College basketball has been wild this season. On Saturday alone, No. 7 Wichita State lost for the second time this week. No. 18 Kentucky lost at home to unranked Florida. No. 10 Kansas, a team ASU defeated, almost lost at home again, this time to Baylor. It took a 9-0 run by the Jayhawks to avoid more disappointment this season (well, by their standards at least). Once the No. 1 team in the country, Michigan State fell to No. 9 this week because of losses to then-unranked Ohio State and Michigan. We’ve all been tough on the Sun Devils for their recent woes, but let’s keep some perspective. Do rankings matter? Not really. All that matters is making the NCAA Tournament with solid seeding, and if ASU can find a groove during this next stretch of the season, it’ll be just fine in that regard.  
  • The Sun Devils now return home to play Utah (Thursday) and Colorado (Saturday). Those two teams gave them fits a couple weeks back. Heck, Colorado fans stormed the court on then-No. 4 ASU. But because those contests are at Wells Fargo Arena, which has been a great environment in recent weeks, those are winnable. If ASU wants to show it’s “back,” it needs to sweep the week. Then it plays Washington and Washington State on the road the next week. By then, the Sun Devils should have more answers to recent issues. If not, they could be in trouble.
  • Basketball is all roses sometimes, but can also be cruel. When ASU blazed through non-conference, Tra Holder, Shannon Evans and Kodi Justice were shooting ridiculously well. But we knew ASU could score. So, in a sense, it didn’t seem like too much of an anomaly. Since Dec. 30, all three have slumped in different stretches. The cruel part is happening — shots that usually fall aren’t going in right now. That shouldn’t last. If a team can score, it can score. And this team was racking up 90-point performances in the beginning of the season — against a few talented teams, too. But if recent weeks have shown us anything, it’s that the Sun Devils really need all three to be playing at some consistently solid level. The outlier, possibly, was when Evans and Justice didn’t play well at Arizona, but Holder’s 31 points almost led the team to a victory. Since then, nothing like that has happened. It has taken a group effort. It seems it’ll need to be that way going forward.
  • Here’s what would worry me if I were an ASU fan: The big men. They have been inconsistent. Romello White had a solid non-conference slate. De’Quon Lake has flashed at times all season. Vitaliy Shibel has hit a few 3-pointers here and there. But dang, if ASU could get them to string together consecutive performances, that would really be something. The Sun Devils have had a difficult time rebounding against bigger teams lately. Makes sense, but it was an area that appeared improved this season. The big men have also gotten into foul trouble, and some of those fouls haven’t been smart. The qualifier is that they’re young and will most likely continue to make strides. The Sun Devils have a talented, experienced backcourt, but it may not matter down the stretch if they get crushed inside.
  • I’ve found it relatively difficult to contextualize where this team is at the moment. Their tournament résumé will be stellar if they can close Pac-12 play with a bang and make a run in the conference tournament. And even if the Sun Devils finish conference play on a mediocre note, the non-conference slate will remain a reminder of what they can do if they get hot. That said, this group has some issues, just like every other team in the country. The Sun Devils don’t respond well to great defense. Or to teams slowing the pace. Or to having to defend larger teams. That said, those seem like issues that can be fixed. The only one that strikes me as a fatal flaw is the trouble against bigger teams. It’s a common issue — not every team can have a stacked frontline — but one that holds teams back in March. There have been bad losses (at Colorado, at Stanford) and good losses (at Arizona). You could label the win at Utah is a “good” win because the Sun Devils overcame poor shooting to win on the road. The Oregon loss was bad, just because ASU had control of that game. The Oregon State win was ugly. And now we know that the second-half run in that game wasn’t enough to cleanse this team of its issues. Was the non-conference Arizona State the real Arizona State? Is the team from the past couple weeks the real Arizona State? Or is the real Arizona State somewhere in the middle? Only time will tell.