Michael Phelps, Jason Kidd, Grant Hill and Arizona Governor Doug Ducey were all in the same building for one reason on a Saturday night: the rematch.
Arizona State Basketball shocked No. 5 Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse in December of 2017’s highly anticipated matchup. However, KU was the top team in the country heading into round two, and ASU had not defeated a top ranked squad since 1981. Even then, the Byron Scott and Fat Lever led Sun Devils were No. 5 in the nation. ASU had never completed an upset of this nature before.
The Jayhawks held the lead for the vast majority of the game, but they let Arizona State hang around. They were up by as many as 12 points, but were never able to put ASU away. Arizona State took its first lead of the game with 2:23 to go. The Devils ended the game on a 13-2 run, led by clutch shots from guards Remy Martin and Rob Edwards.
A flood of ASU students engulfed the court after the final buzzer sounded and the Sun Devils had secured the 80-76 victory. Like 2017, ASU pride was everywhere on social media with alumni boasting and basketball fans everywhere taking notice of the Sun Devils’ presence.
But, last season, despite Arizona State’s hot start, its year never lived up to the win in Lawrence. The Devils started the year 12-0, yet they finished the season 20-12 and they were eliminated in their First Four matchup with Syracuse.
In non-conference play, the ball movement and shooting were superb with 16.3 assists per game and a 40 percent clip from three. The Devils were scoring 91.8 points per game. However, in Pac-12 games, ASU shot 34 percent from deep, only had 12 assists per contest and scored under 80 per game. Rebounding started to become a major issue and opponents shot significantly better against Arizona State.
Are these Devils doomed to that same fate?
For starters, the team has drastically different personnel than last year and it plays a different style. The “Guard U” strategy of starting three guards (Tra Holder, Shannon Evans and Kodi Justice) was fun when threes were falling, but ASU got killed on the boards and struggled to defend the paint with the smaller lineups.
The Sun Devils were steeply out-rebounded by their opponents last year in conference play, especially on the offensive glass. They allowed over 11 offensive rebounds per game.
That is why Arizona State’s newly acquired size makes a huge difference. ASU has been a fantastic rebounding group this season, with 44 rebounds a game, good for fifth-best in the country. San Diego State transfer Zylan Cheatham has been a perfect infusion of size, leading the team with 10.1 rebounds per game.
Specifically, they Sun Devils have dominated the offensive glass this year, 168-107. The Jayhawks didn’t get a single second chance point in the second half last Saturday. In a four-point win, the Sun Devils scored five off of their offensive rebounds.
The personnel differences between last year and this season’s ASU teams also have shown to be huge on defense.
Cheatham is a 6’8” power forward, but is athletic enough to guard on the wings and down low, as he did against Kansas. White has shown improved awareness in the paint in recent games, with two blocked shots against Kansas. The Sun Devils were able to force 10 turnovers including seven steals in the second half against KU, leading to 13 vital points.
ASU allowed 75 points per game last season. This year, they give up 72. Opponents shot 44 percent from the field against ASU in 2017-18. Now, that number is just 39.7 percent. The Jayhawks, a team that shoots 48 percent, hit 11 of 28 shots in the second half against ASU.
It helps that the Pac-12 has been underwhelming. The rest of the conference is a staggering 0-20 against ranked opponents. ASU is 2-1 with wins over Kansas and Mississippi State. Its sole loss was a six-point defeat to No. 6 Nevada.
ASU is ranked 31st on NCAA’s Net Rankings. The next Pac-12 schools are Washington and UCLA at 55 and 61, but UCLA is in free fall right now. UW has held its own in some tough games, but is still 0-3 against top-25 competition. UCLA has lost four straight games, including at home to Belmont and Liberty and just fired Steve Alford.
Vegas Odds gives ASU the best chance of any Pac-12 school by far to win an NCAA championship at 66:1. The next best is Oregon at 80:1, but the Ducks have had a few stinkers already including a home loss to 4-8 Texas Southern.
Arizona State isn’t flawless. It has a fairly low shooting percentage, which killed it against Vanderbilt and Princeton, and ASU doesn’t shoot as well from three as last year. But, the defensive activity and effort on the boards is leaps and bounds better. The Devils will win games differently than last season, as they have found ways to win if the threes aren’t falling as long as they keep their energy up. That is why they have a better chance to win the struggling Pac-12, which could be their first title in Arizona State basketball history.
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