TEMPE – For the Sun Devils, last weekend’s trip to Eugene and Corvallis was nothing short of a disaster, closing out their January schedule with two more tallies in the loss column. In a season of ups and downs for the men’s basketball team, ASU has a chance to get back on track with a homestand against two California teams to begin the second month of 2024.
Stanford (10-9) faces ASU (11-9) tonight at Desert Financial Arena, followed by a visit from the Cal Bears (8-12) Saturday afternoon. If the home crowd can replicate the tremendous vibe it showed the last time ASU played in Tempe, it might help alleviate the lingering bad taste left from the Sun Devils’ awful showing during their recent pair of games in Oregon, both losses.
“These are two huge games for us at home, and we’re hoping for a big, big turnout. Because, a lot can happen by the end of this week, positively or negatively,” ASU coach Bobby Hurley said.
Facing off against the Oregon Ducks, a program that was undefeated (9-0) at home when it hosted ASU last Thursday, was no easy task, and the Sun Devils lost by nearly 20 points with a final score of 80-61.
Similarly, Oregon State has seemed pretty comfortable on its homecourt despite failing to win a single game away from Corvallis this season. The Beavers also had some nice momentum heading into their competition against ASU last Saturday, having just beaten the Arizona Wildcats a few days prior. Again, ASU lost by double digits, falling 84-71 to the Beavers.
In Hurley’s words, it was a “perfect storm of missing shots” that contributed to the team’s struggles to keep up against the Oregon teams offensively.
This weekend will feature both the third and fourth consecutive men’s teams out of California to play at Desert Financial Arena following the Sun Devils’ 68-66 loss to UCLA on Jan. 17 and their 82-67 victory against USC on Jan. 20.
It’s no secret that the 8-12 Trojans have had an underwhelming season up to this point, but after the Sun Devils beat USC by such a commanding victory, aided by the second-largest attendance for a student section in Desert Financial history, the general feeling was that ASU could carry that momentum onto the road.
Despite being unable to change the past, the Sun Devils can look at the positives during their two-game losing streak. For example, sophomore center Shawn Phillips Jr. notched 13 points during his 13 minutes on the court against Oregon State, scoring at almost perfect efficiency, knocking down six of his seven shots from the field and connecting on his only free throw.
“If we can get more of an inside presence like that from him on a relatively consistent basis that would give our offense more balance so that we can throw the ball inside, play inside out,” Hurley said.
Hurley went on to explain that one of the only other active players on the roster who can really back down a defender is graduate forward Jose Perez, who has progressed as a consistent volume scorer for ASU as the season has evolved.
Perez acknowledged the feeling of deja vu surrounding tonight’s matchup against the Cardinal, comparing it to ASU’s first meeting against Stanford this season on Dec. 29 where the team snapped a three game losing streak and won 76-73, which gave the Sun Devils the necessary momentum to begin conference play 4-0 in the Pac-12.
“We’re hungry for a win, we’re in it, and we’re one game away from first place,” Perez said. “We ain’t down, we ain’t out of it, we feel like we could make a run at this thing.”
Perez continued his optimistic approach by explaining “it’s about getting hot at the right time.” Especially with the ever-important month of March quickly approaching.
Perez may have figured it out offensively from an individual standpoint, scoring 19 points against Oregon State and 20 points against Oregon, but Hurley made his thoughts clear when speaking about the relationship between good defense and success.
“Certainly we tilt more to the quick twitch athletic side, you know, our activity, flying around the court,” Hurley said. “If we’re playing good defense it should feel like there are six guys out there.”
For Hurley, this energy on defense is imperative due to the team’s lack of size, and in his opinion, there wasn’t nearly enough fire during the Oregon State matchup. Perhaps the fans could be the missing variable in this energy equation, and Hurley alluded to this while thinking back on the turnout for the last home game at Desert Financial Arena. With USC guard Bronny James – son of LeBron James – in the starting lineup, ASU’s student section saw 4,325 fans come to cheer on the home team.
“It’s great because we get to feed off of their energy, and the fans have been amazing,” guard Frankie Collins said before the Oregon road trip. “For them to show up like that for us is huge.”
Above all, Hurley expressed confidence in his roster with the idea that his players are the ones he wants on the floor, even if they come across some tough matchups. Despite the poor shooting display from the weekend, he still has absolute confidence that his players can knock down shots when it counts.
It’s no secret that ASU plays best when the Sun Devils can get out in transition and make highlight plays at a high speed, and Hurley understands that this style tailors to big home crowds, using the victory against USC as an example.
“We were active, making plays, getting out on the open court, dunking the ball, crowd was going nuts,” Hurley said. “That’s what I want people to come here and watch. I don’t want to come here and watch the paint dry here at the DFA.”
When it’s all said and done, these upcoming home games might be looked back upon as the defining moments of the season with tipoff set for 7 p.m. tonight against Stanford and a 1 p.m. game Saturday battling the visiting Cal Bears.
“We’re doing the best we can, and the guys we have are doing the best they can, that’s all I can say,” Hurley said.