No pair of games better encapsulates the topsy turvy performance that has come to define ASU men's basketball (16-7, 7-4 Pac-12) this season than this past weekend.
The Sun Devils suffered a crushing 91-70 loss to the struggling Washington State Cougars on Thursday, then returned with a vengeance to dominate the conference-leading Washington Huskies 75-63 just two days later.
With a mere two games separating the second place Sun Devils and the seventh place Colorado Buffaloes, who happen to face off Wednesday evening, the fight to secure a spot near the top has never been more intense. For the Sun Devils, the struggle to hang on to the No. 2 spot is even more strenuous.
“We got to have a single-elimination game mentality to every game,” coach Bobby Hurley said. “That’s how we have to approach it. Five of our last seven are on the road, so we have to be together and tough and play good basketball to win.”
A good place to start would be replicating Saturday’s performance, where the Sun Devils shot an astounding 61.7 percent from the field in their dismantling of the Huskies. The ASU attack was as balanced as it had been all year, with all five starters scoring at least nine points in the win.
Hurley’s reputation as a motivator is well-known throughout college basketball, and his ability to inspire a performance of last Saturday’s magnitude is a testament to his methods as a whole.
“We played with a level of desperation that you have to play with,” Hurley said, saying that the players can't pick up the slack just because they're getting pressure from the coaches. “You have to find a way to have the mindset and the chip on your shoulder to want to play that way all the time.”
One player with who coach Hurley has talked at lengths about “mindset” is redshirt sophomore forward Romello White, who submitted arguably his finest performance of the year against Washington with 17 points on 8-for-9 shooting and eight rebounds.
“(White and I) met earlier this week and talked about just bringing that same level of motor and relentlessness that he played with against Washington,” Hurley said. “We talked about how good he was in that game. His defense, his energy, that post move he made in the second half, a lot of big momentum plays he made in that game.”
White’s performance is typically indicative of the team’s performance as a whole, as ASU is 9-2 on the season when the redshirt sophomore scores over 10 points. To his credit, White understands how important he is to the team and has stressed the importance of getting him touches early in the game.
“When I get started early, I feel like it opens up the floor for everybody else,” White said. “Because they’re trying to focus on me, then I kick out and we got driving lanes. We focus on getting the ball inside early and just try and establish a presence down there.”
With only five games remaining on the schedule after this weekend, ASU can't afford any more head-scratching losses. Both Colorado and Utah would qualify as "bad" losses, and if ASU is serious about making the NCAA Tournament then winning both games might be the only acceptable outcome.