Friday, January 30, 2009

This Is What Happens.

When you take a step back and really think about the reasons that #14 Arizona State fell and fell hard to Washington State 65-55 at home last night, the reasons it happened become crystal clear.

There's no sugar coating anything that happened last night. It was an ugly game played by two teams in which it seemed like at times neither squad wanted to actually win.

In the end, it was freshman Klay Thompson that defeated the Sun Devils.

Every time ASU has lost or almost lost, I find myself constantly telling other people "This is what happens when..."

Being a top 25 team carries a lot of responsibility in college basketball. It's not like football where, for the most part, the teams within the rankings stay the same yet fluctuate in their order from week to week. In basketball, two bad losses and two wins by another team can bounce you to the receiving votes category.

Consistent top 25 teams in this game have one thing in common: they do all the little things right. Teams that stay in the rankings don't often make the same little mistakes over and over again and expect them to just remedy themselves.

Last night, every single one of those things that have plagued the Sun Devils caught up to them.

This is what happens when...ASU misses from long range. The usually surehanded Rihards Kuksiks is 3 of his last 20 from outside the arc. It's becoming increasingly clear that Ty Abbott can only consistently hit treys against California. The Devils went 4-for-17 from 3-point land in the 2nd half alone, including a five minute stretch where they missed seven consecutive long shots. At the start of that drought, ASU was up 43-41. By the time Jamelle McMillan missed the 7th in a row, the Devils were down by 8. This was the kind of game where, apparently, ASU was going to live and die by the long range shot and, thanks to 18 bricks, they died.

This is what happens when...ASU doesn't hit free throws. We've griped all season about the Devils missing foul shots, and while the seven misses from the charity stripe wouldn't have made an ultimate change on the final score, making a few of those would have certainly made a difference between it being a nine point deficit late and being, maybe, a 3 or 4 point gap. That changes the entire late game strategy of defense and intentional fouling.

This is what happens when...the matchup zone fails. We all know that the ultimate strength of running any zone defense is to take away a team's offensive inside threat and forces them to take a lot of low percentage shots from outside. Well, what are you going to do when Klay Thompson is 7-for-7 from three point range midway through the 2nd half? Maybe...I don't know...put a MAN on him? After the game, WSU head coach Tony Bennett told the media that there was no reason to expect ASU to change their strategy because he knew Herb Sendek wouldn't deviate from the zone.

As clean and pretty as watching Thompson's stroke was, with every shot he nailed, my frustration grew. He seemed to find himself wide open for at least 5 to 10 seconds on every possession with nary a defensive soul near him. His first miss was a long, uncontested airball. His other miss was an uncontested baseline shot that rimmed out. Every single one of Thompson's threes was uncontested. On a singular possession with about 12:30 left in the 2nd half, it seemed to me that ASU was trying to switch into a man-to-man look to try and contain the hot shooter. When Jamelle McMillan and Jeff Pendergraph tried to execute a switch, they ran into each other and kind of looked at each other for long enough for me to comment, "Are they just going to keep staring?" Luckily, Aron Baynes missed a jumper on that possession.

There has to be something done about this inability to adapt the defensive strategy when an opponent shoots as well as Washington State did last night. The Devils have now been burned more than once by this and it makes for a short run in March if they can't find a way to defend a hot shooter from outside the arc.

This is what happens when...mental mistakes rear their head. I already discussed the defensive lapse that allowed McMillan and Pendergraph to collide. The one other mental mistake that really bothered me occured late in the game while ASU was fouling. With the game still somewhat in reach for the Devils and Aron Baynes, a 77% free throw shooter, at the line, the Sun Devils took a sloppy, lazy lane violation after Baynes missed the front end of a one-and-one. Baynes then sank the next two. That's inexcusable. In situations like that, that can't happen. It doesn't need much more explanation.

Despite all of this, they have to put it behind them, because there's an angry Washington team who just had 100+ points smacked on them by Arizona heading up I-10 and desperate for a win of their own.

A win pulls ASU even at the top of the Pac-10 standings.

A loss puts them two critical games back.

Most important game of the season on Saturday? You bet.

Shameless plug: Look out this afternoon for a new Pitchfork Podcast.

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