When ASU basketball coach Bobby Hurley scheduled back-to-back road games against the University of Georgia and Vanderbilt University, it was intended to simulate the type of stretches ASU basketball must endure come conference play.
While Saturday’s 76-74 come from behind victory against Georgia was inspiring, it’s slightly concerning the Sun Devils needed such a comeback to top the currently 6-4 Bulldogs.
On Monday, that comeback never came as ASU fell 81-65 to Vanderbilt, as poor shooting and inability to get key stops crippled the Sun Devils in the second half.
Yet in both games, it was evident that the 8-2 Sun Devils had more talent than both the Bulldogs and Commodores, and on a neutral site with equal practice time it’s hard to believe either outcome would repeat itself.
It’s worth noting that both Georgia and Vanderbilt hadn’t played in over a week, compared to ASU, which had come off a six-point loss to the No. 6 Nevada Wolf Pack at the Staples Center just days before their trip down south.
That said, both Georgia and Vanderbilt exposed some glaring weaknesses throughout ASU's roster, most notably on offense.
The Sun Devils struggled to get good looks in both games, shooting a dismal 36.4 percent from the field across the two contests while connecting on only 27.1 percent of their three-point attempts.
Much of the Sun Devils' offensive malaise comes from a lack of spacing, due to Hurley’s insistence on playing two non-shooters on the floor at the same time.
It’s often redshirt senior forward Zylan Cheatham, a career 19 percent three-point shooter, paired with traditional low-post players such as redshirt sophomore forward Romello White or senior forward De’Quon Lake.
This has made the life for guards like freshman Luguentz Dort and sophomore Remy Martin significantly more difficult, as both players have formed much of their identity around their ability to get to the basket. A startling amount of ASU possessions end in one of either Dort or Martin barreling into the lane before either throwing up a wild shot or getting blocked.
Whether it was Dort against Vanderbilt...
Or Martin in Georgia.
Both Sun Devil guards have struggled recently at getting clean looks near the rim.
An easy solution is keeping four shooters in the game at all times, limiting the ability of the opposition to pack the paint with long-armed defenders.
Going forward, Hurley should consider experimenting more with smaller, better shooting lineups in an effort to get higher percentage shots for his struggling guards. Trotting out a five of Martin, Dort, Lawrence, Cherry and Cheatham would form an enticing combination of shooting, playmaking and athleticism that should give future Pac-12 opponents fits.
Sliding Cheatham down to the nominal “center” position could reframe both ASU’s offensive and defensive outlook.
Offensively, Cheatham would become the screener in ASU’s pick and roll heavy system, and while the sample size is small, the Dort/Cheatham and Martin/Cheatham pick and roll has been effective in limited use.
Cheatham is much more dangerous with the ball in his hands compared to White or Lake, and his ability to score or facilitate for others prevents opposing shot-blockers from keying in on the Sun Devil guards.
A move to center would also allow more of the offense to flow through Cheatham in the post, an area where his unique skill-set truly shines. He’s more than comfortable taking his slower opponent off the dribble, or finding the open shooter for three.
Below gives an example of Cheatham operating in the post, working through the progressions of the offense before ultimately passing to Edwards for a three-point attempt.
Even with Edwards missing the shot, that’s still an attempt Hurley will live with. Imagine though for a second what the play would’ve looked like if White wasn’t in, and instead had his spot taken by Cherry. Instead of clogging the lane like White, Cherry would be posted in the corner ready to launch off a shot while his defender debates between helping near the basket and guarding his man.
With fewer players in the paint, the initial Lawrence cut has a much higher chance of being open and the ensuing Dort dive in from the opposite wing is almost sure to provide a good look of some sort.
The benefits of moving Cheatham to center don’t just apply on the offensive end, as the redshirt senior could also play a huge part in redefining the Sun Devil defense.
By moving to center, Cheatham’s defensive responsibilities would shift from perimeter-oriented assignments to more of a rim protecting role. There he would be able to truly exploit his impressive physical gifts, and ideally improve ASU’s measly rim protection which has them ranked 185th in the country in blocked shots with an average of 3.3 per game.
Despite only currently averaging 0.7 blocks per game, Sun Devil fans are already very familiar with Cheatham’s ability to send back opposing shots.
He also possesses a nice quickness and mobility that other Sun Devil big men simply do not, and his proficiency for steals and tipped passes would provide more than a few easy possessions for ASU.
Creating more opportunities for Cheatham at the center position would mean more play time for Cherry and less for White and Lake, a move Hurley has already begun slowly shifting towards.
In ASU’s early season victory over the then No.18 Mississippi State Bulldogs, White and Lake combined for 44 minutes while Cherry only logged 12. Yet on Monday against Vanderbilt, White and Lake were only on the floor for 34 minutes total while Cherry saw 20 minutes of action.
Cherry has established himself as a prolific three-point shooter, connecting on almost 38 percent of his three-point shots thus far and has shown a tremendous touch around the basket. While he certainly has some glaring defensive deficiencies he will need to correct, most notably his slow feet and trouble guarding the perimeter, more play time should lead to an uptick in production for the freshman.
Speaking of freshmen, the introduction of Cheatham at center is due in no small part to Dort’s recent struggles shooting the ball. His ability to get into the paint is unparalleled among freshman guards, but when Dort’s not knocking down contested layups or drawing fouls, he begins to hurt more than he helps.
Dort shot a combined 5-23 on the Sun Devil’s SEC road trip, good for a 21.6 field goal percentage. Much of that has to do with an inability to get off clean shots, but some of the blame has to lie with Dort. He needs to be better about taking smarter shots, and should look to involve others more in the early parts of the game. Yet the fact remains he is a once-in-a-decade talent for the Sun Devils.
With the No.1 Kansas Jayhawks coming to town this Saturday, the opportunity has arisen for ASU to assert themselves on the national stage as a force to be reckoned with. The Sun Devils will need more than a few bounces to go their way, but as last year’s upset in Allen Fieldhouse proved anything is possible.