Arizona and Arizona State: Heading In Different Directions?Posted by Andrew Murawa on February 19th, 2014
With Friday night’s defeat to its intrastate rival, Arizona has now lost two of its last four games, not to mention one on their best players to injury for the season. Meanwhile, Arizona State has won six of its last seven; the Sun Devils are another good week away from probably being ranked in the Top 25; and they have senior center Jordan Bachynski playing the best ball of his career with a great second scoring option in Jermaine Marshall. So, the story is easy then, right? Arizona State appears to be ready to peak just in time for March, while Arizona is dead in the water. Is there any truth to both of those easy takeaways? The short answer is “not necessarily, but…” We’ll get to the longer answers below.
By virtue of its big win on Friday, Arizona State has earned the right to have its status assessed first. Let’s start with the reasons to be suspicious of the Sun Devils. The main reason is certainly one you would not have expected at the start of the season, but it is the play of sophomore point guard Jahii Carson, which has been… sketchy, to say the least. He’s a serious baller capable of being the best point guard in the nation, but right now the Arizona State offense — especially in important possessions at the end of close games — consists of Carson dribbling away the majority of the shot clock on empty forays before creating something very late. The Sun Devils’ attempt at the end of regulation when Carson wasted the entire clock, then jumped in the air to seemingly attempt a jumper, only to decide better of it and toss the ball to Marshall for an even worse look, was just the latest in Carson’s late-game one-on-one antics. There is no reason for this. Certainly you want to give him some opportunities to create off the bounce because he can be spectacular when he does so, but priority one in the half-court (important distinction, because the Sun Devils should always be looking to force tempo and get transition hoops when Carson is in the game) should be finding good offense, either working inside-out through Bachynski, or running Marshall and Jonathan Gilling off screens around the perimeter. Until Carson’s hero-ball tendencies get shelved for the season, there will be some reason to remain suspicious of the Sun Devils.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that Carson has shown in the past that he can be a very good point guard. And certainly Herb Sendek knows how to coach. You can assume that Arizona State has a competent video guy who can edit together a handful of late-game possessions aborted by Carson’s poor decision-making to drive this point home, so there’s every chance that this problem goes away soon. Throw in the fact that Bachynski, perhaps the game’s best rim-protector helming a top-20 defense, has blossomed as an offensive performer over the past couple weeks and the entire squad still has plenty of upside. They’ve got three guys who will at least get NBA looks as early as next season, and their biggest problems are fixable ones. This is a team that can make a splash come March.
On to Arizona where the emerging storyline seems to be that the Brandon Ashley injury has irreparably lowered this team’s ceiling. It is true that their chances have been greatly diminished. But let’s not write these guys out of the March script just yet. First, while the Ashley injury hurts Arizona’s overall size and depth, this is still a team that can put an elite, top-shelf defensive team out there for the vast majority of 40 minutes. They showed it off again on Friday night. Often Carson would get switched on a pick to where Aaron Gordon was guarding him and Nick Johnson was guarding Bachynski. Time and time again, Gordon was able to deter Carson long enough to make him reset the offense and allow the Wildcats to switch back to their original assignments. This point cannot be emphasized enough: The Wildcats are still a great, great defensive team.
Offensively, on the other hand, there are some hiccups right now. But some of these are fixable. Where prior to the Ashley injury, the standard late-game, end-of-shot-clock, two-man game was a pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop between Johnson and Ashley, now it seems that the late-game scenario features Johnson and junior point guard T.J. McConnell most prominently. In part, this is due to the fact that Sean Miller doesn’t want Gordon or fellow freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson looking at a 15-foot jumper in the half-court, nor does he really want them to drive and get sent to the free throw line. That’s all fine and well, but Johnson and McConnell as your go-to offensive guys does not an elite offensive team make; this is how you wind up with Johnson, guarded by the not-exactly-fleet-of-foot Bo Barnes, settling for a fall-away 15-footer on a potential game-winning possession at the end of regulation. What we may very well see develop as this team remakes itself is the heavier use of Kaleb Tarczewski in the offense. He’s greatly improved as a post guy who can receive and move the ball as a part of the half-court offense; he’s adept at setting interior screens for guys like Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson to take advantage around the paint; and if you’re mainly keeping the ball in the hands of he and Johnson late in the game, you’ve got a pair of upper-70-percent free throw shooters.
The biggest reason why you can’t count out the Wildcats as national title contenders is simple, though: teamwork. It shows up plainly on defense where every guy is looking out for his teammates and ready to step over and cover any mistakes or mismatches that may occur. But it is there offensively too. Everyone wants to play to his role and do the little things they can do to help their teammates. This is how you wind up with five of your top six players with assist rates above ten percent. This is how you wind up with assists on better than 57 percent of all made field goals. And this is how you wind up with 23 wins in 25 outings. Yes, the Wildcats still have some adjusting to do, but don’t begin to count them out.