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ASU basketball finds strength in defense despite rebounding woes

ASU basketball had a hot start to conference play but has struggled as of late, here is what's going well, not so well and how it compares to last season


ASU junior guard Jamiya Neal (5) defends Bronny James in game against USC at Desert Financial Arena in Tempe on Saturday, Jan. 20, 2024. ASU won 82-67.

The ups and downs of ASU basketball are back. After going 6-5 in non-conference play, they blew expectations out of the water, starting their Pac-12 season 4-0. But since then, the Sun Devils have lost four of their five recent games and now sit No.5 in the conference at 5-4. 

The Sun Devils are having a poor offensive year. Defensively, they have been relying on a three-pronged strategy that consists of junior guard Frankie Collins, a lethal full-court press, and a defense-equaling offense mindset.

Despite the recent losses, Collins is still playing well. He currently leads the Pac-12 and sits second in the country, averaging 3.2 steals per game. This defense from Collins is no luck; he has it down to calculating when and how to attack a ball handler.

"Say someone's dribbling up the floor; I try and like calculate their dribbles, how many dribbles they take before they cross or whatever, or flinch at them and see how they would react if I flinch so that'll let me know if I can gamble or not," Collins said. "Most of the time, it's me playing hard. If I play hard, the ball finds me."

His season high in steals is eight against UMass Lowell. 

The team also utilizes a full-court press, and having a couple of lengthy players along with the team’s speed and technique, they can force many turnovers with said press. Usually, someone will pick up the primary ball handler on the inbound, and then ASU will look for traps and long passes they can intercept. 

With this press and defense, the Sun Devils force their opponent to turn the ball over an average of 14.25 times a game. Forcing these turnovers helps them get out in transition and do exactly what they want. After a win against USC, junior guard/forward Jamiya Neal said the team doesn’t even like to run a half-court offense. 

"We'd rather get out and show our athleticism, talent and skills," Neal said. "Defense is offense for us. That's what we preach. There's no better way to score than getting out in transition, getting steals, getting stops and getting out quick."

On the other hand, ASU is struggling offensively. In their most recent game against the Oregon State Beavers, they went 3-26 from behind the arc and made less than 35% of their field goals. Head coach Bobby Hurley was unhappy with this shooting performance at OSU and said they just got to see the ball go through the basket. 

"We can talk about will and determination all we want, but man, we gotta make shots," Hurley said. "If you take Frankie's late three and Jamiya's late three out of the equation because the game has virtually been decided at that point, we were 1-24 for the game. That's insanely bad shooting."

As mentioned earlier, part of the offensive game they try to avoid is setting up in that half-court offense. However, when they are forced to slow the ball down and set it up, Hurley said there are a few key things they look to do. 

"You're trying to evaluate game to game, like: 'Who's got a hot hand? Who can we get the ball to? Who's playing well? Who hasn't had a shot in a number of possessions? Can we get this guy a shot and get this guy going?'" Hurley said.

Hurley said that, usually, their offense consists of Collins and Neal breaking opponents down off the dribble and making plays while redshirt junior guard Adam Miller comes off screens looking to let it fly. Hurley also said good things happen when graduate forward Jose Perez has the ball in his hands, and that graduate student Alonzo Gaffney is a constant in the offense with his movement and ability to play off his teammates.

As of late, that’s been their "best offensive formula."

How does this year's team stack up to last year's?

ASU was a respectable 15-5 two-thirds of the way through the schedule last season. The Sun Devils went 9-2 in non-conference play before embarking on a tougher Pac-12 slate. Game 20 of the 2022-2023 season concluded with a loss to USC, which sent ASU into a downward spiral, in which the team lost six of its last 11 regular season games.

This season, the Sun Devils similarly hit their 20-game mark with a blowout loss against Oregon State. ASU faired far worse in non-conference play, with lopsided losses against tournament-bound teams like BYU and Mississippi State. 

The Sun Devils' inconsistency hindered their chances to make the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back seasons.  The Sun Devils' odds can jump if they win nearly all remaining games, but the chance of that happening is slim due to a pair of tough games against UA and upcoming meetings with Washington State and Colorado. 

A major reason ASU is struggling to compete against stronger opponents is rebounding. The Sun Devils' -8.3 rebounding differential ranks 348th of 350 teams in the nation in rebound margin. In their last two outings, the Sun Devils were shockingly out-rebounded by 28 boards, including a skewed rebounding differential of 21 against Oregon State.

The team's rebounding problem becomes evident when compared to past seasons. Senior forward Warren Washington commanded the paint last season to earn a team-high 6.9 rebounds per game. His efforts kept ASU to a -1.9 rebounding margin, which limited opponents' second-chance points and created opportunities for the team on the other end. 

This year's squad is noticeably shorter and weaker in the paint. Sophomore forward Shawn Phillips Jr. is ASU's tallest player as a seven-footer, but he's only averaging 3.3 rebounds per game and has struggled while on the floor. Similarly, senior forward Zane Meeks, ASU's second-tallest player, could be called on to win rebounds, but he's only played in five games due to a foot injury. 

Junior forward Bryant Selebangue has been an asset when others can't get rebounds. Selebangue averages 4.1 rebounds per game but has won six or more rebounds in all seven matches he's played in 15 minutes or more. If he's on the floor more, his basketball IQ and gritty mentality may help the team trim away its rebound margin.

"I had to work a lot just this offseason on my strength, so being able to box out guys and seal guys," Selebangue said. "That's one thing that's very underrated for me. Guys are a couple of inches taller than me, but I never let that get to me."

READ MORE: Forward Bryant Selebangue uses experience and energy to contribute to Sun Devil success

The Sun Devils' rebounding and offensive woes have downed them in much-needed games, but Hurley isn't worried about his team's prospects down the road.

"The last month, we've been a different basketball team," Hurley said. "You don't want to be around people that give up or give in, ever. So the fact that they approached it that way meant enough for them to fight for their season, the way they have the last month has been highly impressive to me."

ASU basketball continues its season with two games at home this week, starting with a matchup against Stanford University on Thursday night.

Edited by Alfred Smith III, Walker Smith and Grace Copperthite.

Correction: The original caption for the headline image identified the wrong player. This was corrected to identify the correct player at 10:11am on Jan. 31, 2024.

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