Throughout the duration of conference play, ASU men’s basketball has shot itself in the foot with an inability to defend big men. This year’s second round of the Territorial Cup game was no different as freshman forward Deandre Ayton, an NBA prospect, piled up 25 points and 16 rebounds.
Ayton first acquainted himself with ASU fans on Dec. 30 when he racked up 23 points and 19 boards in pursuit of handing the Sun Devils their first loss.
Fast forward to the second meeting and little changed.
“He’s a special player,” head coach Bobby Hurley said. “After competing against him twice, he may be the best big that I’ve seen in college as a player and as a coach in terms of his future and his upside, and he’s just scratching the surface of what he’ll be, it’s hard to imagine what he’ll be.”
The future pro took what the Sun Devils hold closest to them and beat them with it.
“We’ve hung our hat all year on getting to the free throw line way better than our opponent,” Hurley said.
Ayton and company snatched that hat and took it to the free throw line 27 times – 15 more than ASU.
“They murdered us at the free throw line,” Hurley said. “That really was the difference.”
ASU’s own big men were the ones putting the Wildcats on the charity strip more often than not. The Sun Devils’ forwards, tasked with keeping Ayton under control, were responsible for 16 of ASU’s 23 fouls.
Connecting on 9 of his 12 free throws, Ayton forced Hurley’s big men to either play it conservative or risk sending him back to the line – they chose the latter – and did so for Ayton’s full 38 minutes.
“He doesn’t get that tired either,” Hurley said. “We kind of had him on the perimeter running around on ball screens, thinking that it might be easier for our guards to go by but he holds his own away from the basket on defense.”
You’d figure if the Sun Devils couldn’t stop Tucson’s prized celebrity at the rim or on the boards, maybe they’d have success preventing him from involving his teammates – you’d be wrong. Ayton’s four assists were good enough for second-most on either team.
“I mean he’s 7’1”,” senior guard Kodi Justice said. “He could see over anyone that we’re trapping with … it’s not that difficult when he’s 7’1”.”
With ASU granting Ayton two of his highest rebound totals this season, the case has been all too familiar for the Sun Devils.
In ASU’s loss to Washington, junior forward Noah Dickerson stuffed the stat sheet with 21 points and 16 rebounds, his second highest rebound total of the season.
Against Oregon, the Sun Devils lacked an answer for Ducks’ senior forward MiKyle McIntosh, who left Tempe with 12 points and 13 rebounds.
The list goes on with the likes of Oregon State’s redshirt sophomore forward Tres Tinkle (18 points, 10 rebounds) and Cal senior forward Marcus Lee (23 points, 8 rebounds).
While much of ASU’s conference stumble is credited to opponents running a 2-3 zone defense or changing the pace of game, the Sun Devils seem to be up a creak without a paddle against Pac-12 big men.
Only three times during ASU’s historic non-conference (12-0) stretch did an opposing player have ten or more rebounds. Fourteen conference games later, and it appears it’s happening every other game.
Ayton has done it twice himself.
Although opponents have found success in stumping ASU with a specific defensive scheme, Pac-12 big men are the real culprits the Sun Devils should keep an eye on.