At a 15-7 overall record and a 6-5 conference record, ASU men's basketball is the sixth-ranked team in the Pac-12. And despite the steep hole the team dug itself into, the Sun Devils still have a chance to right their wrongs and get the season back on track with nine games remaining.
After the loss to UCLA, head coach Bobby Hurley said, "We've been taking it," and indeed, the team has been, as it builds off a historic start. This season, ASU's feats include a big win against Michigan, a nine-game winning streak, and an AP top-25 ranking in week seven.
Since the University of San Francisco snapped ASU's nine-game winning streak following an AP top-25 ranking nod, the Sun Devils have declined, losing six out of their last 10 games.
After a valiant effort that ended in defeat against UCLA, the Sun Devils are now amid a season-threatening four-game skid. The team played against the fifth-ranked UCLA Bruins at home on Jan. 19, a matchup with a lot at stake, the winner earning a first place spot in the Pac-12 rankings.
The white-hot Bruins left Tempe as winners of 14 straight games and tied with their all-time consecutive win record since the 2007-08 season, and it took a total effort for the Bruins to reach that feat.
Both teams started slowly as the Sun Devils played solid defense early on, forcing the Bruins into 37.5% shooting as a team and the most turnovers they've had in a first half of the season with 10.
It was a tale of two halves for the Bruins as they opened the second half with renewed energy and urgency on offense. An 8-0 run gave UCLA the lead at 38-35 just one minute into the half. The Sun Devils didn't stop coming, but ultimately fell short 74-62.
"We gave our best shot tonight," Hurley said after the game. "Did we play perfectly? No, but everyone fought their ass off to try and win this game, and now there's some disappointed guys in the locker room."
What followed the emotional loss to UCLA was a visit from its Los Angeles counterpart, USC, on Jan. 21 in a 77-69 loss senior forward Warren Washington called "flat-out embarrassing." The Sun Devils played from behind most of the game but ended on a 16-0 run.
However, ASU could not utilize momentum garnered at the end of the USC game when it traveled to play Washington on Jan. 26. Fifth-year guard Desmond Cambridge Jr. played a team-high 43 minutes and scored a game-high of 26 points in ASU's 69-66 overtime loss.
ASU has struggled to find consistent offense outside its defensive dominance all season; the Sun Devils rank 32nd in defensive efficiency. In comparison, ASU is ranked 227th in offensive efficiency.
One of the Sun Devils' highest-scoring players for the past two seasons, junior guard DJ Horne, served a one-game suspension for "conduct detrimental to the team" in the 75-58 loss to Washington State on Jan. 28, according to Hurley.
"We were all in a heated moment following the loss," Hurley said during a remote press conference Wednesday. "...He (Horne) lost his cool after the game, and so it was a situation we handled the best way we can, and we needed to do what we did, so the action we took was appropriate."
Horne, averaging 11.2 points per game this season, scored 14 points against UCLA; however, he looked out-of-sync against USC as he was held scoreless on five shot attempts. Against Washington, Horne only played 15 minutes, and against Washington State, he did not play.
This season the Sun Devils have had double-digit performances turned in by senior guard Devan Cambridge, sophomore guard Frankie Collins, Washington and Cambridge Jr.; but their most consistent, reliable scoring option, outside of Cambridge Jr., has always been Horne. During ASU's nine-game winning streak, Horne was the catalyst of what existed within the Sun Devils' offense, scoring double-digits in six of the nine straight wins.
Cambridge, Washington and Collins have been fantastic for ASU basketball this season, individually offering different elements to the team. The transfers may be the most significant cause for ASU's success on defense.
Still, ASU's scoring options are limited with the loss of sophomore forward Marcus Bagley early in the season due to similar conduct issues following the Nov. 10 NAU game. Horne on the floor is necessary for the Sun Devils to have a competent offensive philosophy.
One of the most significant differences during this losing streak is the evident dip in shooting percentages over the last four games, plausibly stemming from Horne's shooting.
ASU shot decent against UCLA at about 45%; Horne scoring 14 points on 4-9 shooting in that game. In the next two games, the Sun Devils shot 38% against USC, almost 31% against Washington, and about 34% against Washington State.
During the nine-game win streak, the Sun Devils hit 45% of their shots, which conveys that, despite those being wins, their defensive efforts drove their early success. The Sun Devils are ranked in the top 20 in blocked shots.
ASU played well enough defensively to win past losses to UA, UCLA and Washington, so it is interesting to consider the outcomes if Horne shares his usual input in the remaining games of the season.
In order to get back on track, the Sun Devils will need to regroup quickly, find a suitable route out of the slump and finish the season strong with a tall task ahead in the form of a stiff end-of-season road trip visiting UA, UCLA and USC.
Despite on-court struggles in play and off-court issues among the team, Hurley is confident with where his Sun Devils are as a team.
"For the most part I think we have a really healthy environment with how we coach the guys, and I think the guys enjoy being in the program," Hurley said Wednesday.
ASU looks to snap its four-game losing streak and sweep Oregon State in the season series at 6 p.m. MST Thursday at Desert Financial Arena in Tempe. The team will play Oregon at home Saturday at 8 p.m. MST.
Edited by Kathryn Field, Walker Smith, Jasmine Kabiri and Piper Hansen.