A Hater’s Guide to Arizona State Basketball

Posted by RJ Abeytia on December 27th, 2017

All right, Arizona State. You’ve got our attention. 12-0 is no joke, not with a road win at Allen Fieldhouse on your resume. A lofty #3 AP and RPI ranking means the Sun Devils can no longer be ignored or dismissed. A date with Arizona in Tucson where Arizona State will be ranked significantly above its rival Wildcats tells you that Netflix is not the only place where you can witness the Upside Down. Of course, in these times of instant gratification, that means every part of the Hero’s journey is accelerated, and since there’s nothing America likes to do as much as put a new face on a pedestal only to knock it down, it’s time for the backlash. Let’s talk about the most dubious aspects of Arizona State’s success and see if its profile suggests sustainability. Let’s bring the hate.

Arizona State Has Had a Dream Season to Date (USA Today Images)

First of all, Shannon Evans and Tra Holder are playing way too many minutes. Holder’s minutes in the last four games were 40, 37, 32 and 28. Trending correctly, right? Sure, as long as Longwood and Pacific are the opponents. Evans is right there with his teammate, playing just a shade under 88 percent of his possible minutes. Senior Kodi Justice is also playing 82 percent of his available minutes. Our colleague Adam Butler is right in saying that benches and depth tend to be overrated in college basketball, but at 6’1” and under 181 pounds each, Evans and Holder cannot expected to play a full season at the blistering pace the Sun Devils have set for themselves. I’ll add a corollary.  Depth quantity may not matter, but depth production does. You don’t need a 10-man rotation to win in college basketball. However, you do need to develop enough trust such that your best players aren’t pushing past 35 minutes on a nightly basis. That’s also an issue with Romello White, the 6’8” freshman forward who has provided a sorely needed inside presence for Bobby Hurley.

White is not being overburdened by minutes, having played only 68 percent of his available time and never breaching 30 minutes in any of the last seven games. However, he’s still a freshman, and freshmen hit walls. He grabs nearly 20 percent of the Sun Devils’ rebounds on defense and 15 percent of their offensive boards. De’quon Lake and Mikey Mitchell are trying to earn Hurley’s trust as White’s backups, but they aren’t nearly the player he is. Evans and Holder are not that big, and it remains to be seen if they are that good. Arizona State is living the modern analytics dream on offense. The Sun Devils get their points from three (32%) and from the line (24%, 18th nationally), which means they are largely eschewing low-percentage twos. Only 44 percent of Arizona State’s points come on made two-pointers, 299th-best (worst?) in college basketball.

This is all well and good as long as Evans and Holder can maintain the 39 and 45 percent marks which they are respectively hitting from downtown. The pair have made 60 percent of the team’s threes this season, and Holder came in as a career 37 percent shooter from beyond the arc. Improvement is always possible, but that kind of significant year-over-year improvement as a shooter seems unsustainable. What happens when some of those threes start drying up? White, for all his solid efforts, is currently shooting 59 percent from the foul line, and he and Evans take by far the most free throws on the squad. Teams will find the freshman at the end of close games, and if he either fails to convert or starts shying away from an attack because he doesn’t want to be put on the line, that’s a win-win for Sun Devils’ opponents.

Defensively, Arizona State has been solid if not spectacular. Their 100.9 Defensive Rating is comfortably below the national average of 103.7. The Sun Devils have been turning teams over at a very high rate (22%), something which is less likely to happen once Pac-12 play starts. Their ability to run Kansas over was a big factor in the win in Lawrence, so it’s not like they are just punking the cupcakes on their schedule to get to this point. Teams are also getting to the offensive glass against this team. Arizona State allows opponents to snare 31.4 percent of their available rebounds, and they’ve been the beneficiaries of some good fortune as opponents have only shot 67 percent from the free throw line against them this season. That number should be expected to rise as the season progresses.

So there you go. Arizona State is a very good team — about that there is no question. But are they really America’s third-best squad? Color me dubious. The bottom line is that they’ve played a fantastic season so far; they are built exactly the way college teams should be built in this day and age; and they have the most valued commodity in the sport: experienced and effective guard play. If their three-point shooting holds up; if Evans and Holder don’t bust a gasket playing so many minutes; if White comes out the other end of his inevitable freshman downtick; and if their “free throw defense” holds up; I’ll be on board. I don’t see that happening, however. The Sun Devils are much better than I thought they’d be, and they are categorically very good. Great?

Let’s see what unfolds in Tucson this Saturday.

Richard Abeytia (41 Posts)

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