Big challenge ahead for Arizona State men’s basketball as Top 25 opponents await

Arizona State men’s basketball coach Bobby Hurley knows his team has a tough road ahead. He thinks it’s the type of challenge his team will embrace. (Photo by Alex Gould/Cronkite News)

TEMPE – Losing streaks are never easy to overcome. Arizona State’s current three-game skid couldn’t have come at a worse time.

“These guys are giving me everything they have,” ASU men’s basketball coach Bobby Hurley said Tuesday. “So that’s really all that I can ask for. We’ll just try and stay positive and hope we can turn this thing around.”

Hurley, along with the rest of the team and staff, are searching for answers after losing three in a row and four out of their last five. Since conference play began, ASU is 6-12 (2-6 in the Pac-12), and the schedule isn’t getting any easier in its next stretch of games.

In a span of 94 hours, the Sun Devils will face not one, not two but three nationally ranked opponents in USC, UCLA and Arizona. It’s a three-game homestand at Desert Financial Arena, but is the mountain ASU has to climb too steep?

The Sun Devils don’t appear rattled.

“It’s a very exciting week coming up,” sophomore guard DJ Horne said. “This is a chance for us to give our fans something to look forward to to finish this season.”

“It’s why you’re a competitor,” Hurley said. “It’s why you play in the Pac-12, to have the chance to have your next three games against Top 20 teams.”

It’s easy to think ASU is rundown after the past two weeks, when it took some heartbreaking and unfortunate losses.

It was a roller coaster loss two weeks ago for the Sun Devils against Stanford. The game consisted of a 15-point ASU comeback in the second half, several technical fouls, along with game-winning free throws for the Cardinal with 1.1 seconds on the clock. The 29th and final foul against the Sun Devils ultimately led to one game suspensions for coach Bobby Hurley and guard Jay Heath.

“It hurts when you score that many more field goals than they did,” Hurley said. ASU had made 12 more shots than Stanford, but the fouls were back-breaking to a struggling team down the stretch.

Hurley said the team addresses the issue of fouling in practice.

“We tried to talk about getting our hands back some more in our zigzag drills and how we pressure the ball,” he said.

In Los Angeles at the Galen Center, co-acting head coaches Joel Justus and Jermaine Kimbrough did what they could against 15th-ranked USC, but the lack of players due to both injury and suspension, coupled with the absence of their head coach never gave them a chance. They lost 78-56. ASU will tip off against USC in Tempe at 9 p.m. Thursday.

Hurley was apologetic about his absence from that game.

“It felt surreal,” he said. “I felt enormous regret to not be there with my team.”

Junior forward Jalen Graham knew even though Hurley wasn’t in the building, “he was with us, I know he was fighting still.”

To cap off the losing streak, arch-rival Arizona took down ASU in Tucson on Saturday, despite the Wilcats’ shooting struggles. At halftime, the third-ranked Wildcats were tied with their not-so-successful rival at 32. Eventually, UArizona found its stride and took the game 67-56.

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“We were toe-to-toe with them,” Horne said. “Just the way we came out and competed when nobody really expected us to come out to play like that, just showed us within ourselves that on any given day, we can compete with the best of them.”

In those past three games, ASU shot 39.8% from the field, and it is still last in the Pac-12 in that category. The Sun Devils attempted only 29 free throws in those games (Stanford shot 41 in its game against ASU), and they averaged 62.7 points per game, which is also last in the Pac-12.

It’s been a particular struggle for freshman center Enoch Boayke and junior Alonzo Gaffney. Against Arizona, the two went a combined 0 for 3 on field goals and totaled five rebounds in 32 minutes. Hurley still believes they will make a big impact the rest of the season.

“I think (Alonzo) is secretly really valuable … being a rim runner,” Hurley said. “Enoch just has to simplify things and just finish around the basket a little better when he gets his opportunities.”

The eventual return of Marcus Bagley should help their offensive woes, but it may be too late by then. Hurley updated the media on his status Tuesday saying “He’s continuing to get his work in on PT. … He’s going to do whatever he can to get back.”

The Sun Devils believe – even though the record in January wasn’t pretty – that they’re getting better as the season goes on.

“The season definitely isn’t where we wanted it to be,” Horne said. “But just the fact that we’re still building and guys are still invested into the team, it’s a good feeling.”

The offense in practice has been much more go-with-the-flow as opposed to traditional set plays in the half court, Horne said.

“We’re doing a lot of things where the guards are just flowing … so that we can get more shots up in transition,” he said.

A change of tempo and methodology could give this stagnant offense a boost. Fans haven’t been showing up in light of the team’s performance. Desert Financial Arena has a 14,198 seat capacity. In ASU’s last home game against Utah, just 6,482 fans were in the seats.

Will it affect how much energy the Sun Devils can bring in their home for the next five days? Maybe. Do the players even think about stuff like that?

Well, DJ Horne said, “Not really.”

“We kind of just go into each game with a ‘us versus the world’ mindset, and I feel like that’s been good for us,” Horne said.

But he wasn’t blaming Sun Devil fans for not showing their support.

“Any team playing like we’ve been playing, I would expect the fans to react the way they do,” he said.

Regardless of fan attendance, this next stretch could make or break the destiny of the 2021-22 men’s team. At 6-12 overall and 2-6 and ninth place in the Pac-12, ASU has a lot of work to do with 12 games left before the conference championship tournament in Las Vegas.

Graham’s belief?

“We just have to focus on one game at a time. That’s what we’re going to keep doing.”

Spencer Gustafson SPEN-ser GUHS-tuv-sun
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Spencer Gustafson is in his third semester at the Phoenix Sports bureau. Gustafson, a digital reporter, has interned with the Savannah Bananas and will graduate in spring 2023.

Alex Gould ah-lex goo-old (he/him/his)
News Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Alex Gould expects to graduate in May 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in psychology. Gould, who is a photo intern with The Arizona Republic and a photo editor at The State Press, is working for the Phoenix news bureau.