The Sun Devil men’s basketball team is off to its best start since the 2008-09 season with a record of 15-3 and a Pac-12 conference record of 6-1. The squad has sole possession of second place in the conference and has a chance to claim a tie for first place with a win over UCLA on Thursday night.
What has led head coach Bobby Hurley’s squad to its hottest start in over a decade with a chance to compete for a Pac-12 title and NCAA Tournament bid?
The success of the Sun Devil team begins and ends with its prowess on the defensive end. As of Jan. 18, ASU ranks eighth in the country in field goal percentage defense, with its opponents hitting only 37.685% of their shots. The team is only 0.003 percentage points behind Utah for seventh in the Pac-12.
After a dominant 90-73 win over Oregon on Jan. 12, Hurley said the team has built its identity from its defense.
“That's our calling card. We got really good athleticism and length on the perimeter and lateral quickness,” Hurley said.
The defensive success is derived primarily from the interior, where senior and 7-foot forward Warren Washington, who transferred from Nevada before this season, controls the paint and protects the rim.
ASU is tied for 19th in the country in blocks per game, largely due to Washington’s presence. Washington is third in the Pac-12 averaging two blocks per game, and even if he is not blocking interior shots, he is often altering them, contributing to ASU’s elite field goal percentage defense.
Washington is not the only defensive force pacing ASU. Fifth-year senior guard Desmond Cambridge Jr. leads the team in steals per game (1.5) and is second behind Washington in blocks per game (0.8). At 6-foot-4-inches, he has positional versatility and often guards both opposing guards and opposing forwards. Sophomore point guard Frankie Collins averages 1.4 steals per game and provided a clutch takeaway to seal the team’s 74-69 win in Corvallis against Oregon State on Jan. 14.
Cambridge Jr. said even if ASU is struggling offensively, it can stay competitive in games with its defense.
“A team’s defense can really disrupt your whole flow, your mental state, just being aggressive,” Cambridge Jr. said. “I feel like we have that tenacity, period, regardless of whether we’re scoring or not … as long as we play like that on defense, that’s why I feel like we can beat any team because that’s going to be consistent.”
Another key cog in the Sun Devil defense is Desmond’s brother, 6-foot-6-inch senior Devan Cambridge. Though listed as a guard on ASU's official roster, he most often guards opposing power forwards.
Against UA on New Year’s Eve, Cambridge was assigned to guard 6-foot-11-inch junior forward and Pac-12 Conference player of the year candidate Azuolas Tubelis, and although Tubelis finished the game with 21 points, he shot 60% from the field compared to his season average of 57.4% despite a 5-inch height advantage on Cambridge.
In the same way a center anchors a defense, Collins runs point for an ASU offense strong enough to complement its defense and compete for the top of the Pac-12 standings. Collins is third in the Pac-12 in assists per game and is the primary ball-handler for a team that ranks third in the conference in assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.27, behind only UA and UCLA.
Those assists are often setting up two of the team’s top scorers, Cambridge Jr. and junior guard DJ Horne, who both average 12.1 points per game. Horne said that besides making shots, making good passes and getting teammates good shots are the best indicators of offensive success for the Sun Devils.
“I think that when we’re playing our best basketball, our assist totals are very high,” Horne said.
Cambridge Jr. has been a particularly consistent shotmaker for ASU, taking nearly two-thirds of his shots from 3-point range and making 34.7% of them from deep.
Horne, who is ASU’s leading returning scorer from last season, is shooting 36.5% from the field and making 32.1% of his 3-pointers, after shooting 36% from deep last season. Horne expressed confidence that he will soon regain his shooting touch.
“As a shooter, you know, you just have to have a short mindset,” Horne said. “Just keep telling yourself, you know, shoot the shot the same way, keep playing the same way, make the right passes, and hopefully someday the basketball gods will bless you and help you make shots.”
Washington is the only starter not averaging double-figure points per game, despite shooting 64.1% from the field, the squad’s best mark. Hurley said he was pleased with Washington’s ability to impact the game offensively even if he’s not always being given the ball underneath.
“He does so many things to help us win,” Hurley said. “He’s going to run the floor and get touches, he’s going to roll to the basket and get touches, he’s going to go to the offensive board and finish plays, so there’s a lot of ways that he can score.”
One option to give Washington more opportunities to score is to use him as a release valve at the end of broken possessions, as Desmond Cambridge Jr. alluded to in a press conference before the game against Oregon.
“We should have been giving him the ball, and I feel like that’s a little bit on me too,” Cambridge Jr., who transferred to ASU from Nevada with Washington this past summer, said. “When we would struggle last year at Nevada, we would give the ball to him, because regardless if he scored or not, if you haven’t noticed he’s a great passer as well.”
Washington is averaging 1.7 assists per game, second in the Pac-12 in assists among centers, and 1.7 assists per game in his past five games despite a zero-assist night against Oregon State.
“That’s the thing with offense,” Cambridge Jr. said. “You need to understand what everybody can do. Especially with how free we play, that’s important. That’s been an emphasis recently.”
ASU has one of its season’s most critical weekends ahead of it, hosting UCLA at 8:30 p.m. MST on Thursday and USC at 8 p.m. MST on Jan. 21.
Edited by Kathryn Field, Jasmine Kabiri, Caera Learmonth and Greta Forslund.