Arizona State men's basketball back on the bubble and needing wins in Washington

Michelle Gardner
Arizona Republic
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Ask Arizona State men's basketball coach Bobby Hurley and he'll tell you with 11 games left in the regular season it's too early to start thinking about who is in the NCAA postseason or not. A week ago the Sun Devils were "in" according to most projections. But after being swept at home by the Los Angeles schools, they have seemingly played their way out, or are at least on the bubble — for now.

Hurley doesn't exactly buy that because he thinks his team has still performed admirably for the balance of the season. He has signed off social media to insure he is less tempted to see who is saying what.

"I'm burying my head in the sand with this and figuring how to win one game at a time," he said. "I did do a deeper dive, the blue blood heavyweights out there that might be 13-7 or 14-6, and there are a lot of big names, that are kind of in our wheelhouse with record overall and in conference play. We certainly have to continue to win games and that's what we're trying to do. Look at those names, look at their records and then someone can come over and try and tell me we're not having a good season."

The Sun Devils (15-5, 6-3) have a chance to further their cause this week but face the always-difficult challenge of trying to win Pac-12 games on the road. Not that they can't do that. Before the disappointing home week ASU won a pair of road contests against the Oregon schools, the first time they had swept those two on the road in 13 years.

Now it's back to the Pacific Northwest, this time in the state of Washington. First up is a 9 p.m. game at Washington (12-9, 4-6) on Thursday. Then it's a 6 p.m. contest on Saturday at Washington State (9-12, 4-6). Both games will air on ESPNU.

More:Arizona State men's basketball team now will hit the road with no room for error

Every game is vital, particularly with as close as the conference standings are. No. 8 UCLA (17-3, 8-1) tops the heap, with Utah (14-7, 7-3) a game in the win column ahead of ASU. No. 6 Arizona (17-3, 6-3) and USC (14-6, 6-3) are tied for third.

The Washington schools are tied for eighth.

While the Sun Devils battled before coming up short against UCLA 74-62, they came out flat the next game in a 77-69 loss to USC. Hurley said he didn't beat his team up over the latter game, just because it was more of an anomaly and not what he has seen out of his team over the course of the previous 19 games.

"I resisted the temptation of reverting back to some of my old tactics that I might have done in my younger years as a coach when you have a team that, we didn't perform with the appropriate energy on defense and struggled at that end of the floor," he said. "Usually when that would happen I might flip out and I'd be mentally tough on the guys with the film and then a very physical kind of track practice style workout.

"Those games were emotionally and physically draining. The team has performed well in wide margins this season so I thought that was the best path to take. We were guarding with much better energy the last two days so I feel good about what we're doing."

ASU Sun Devil forward Warren Washington (22) fights for a rebound with USC Trojans guard Tre White (22) at Desert Financial Arena in Tempe on Jan. 21, 2023.

The Sun Devils defeated both Washington teams earlier this month in Tempe. ASU turned back Washington State 77-71 and beat Washington 73-65 in a game that was not that close. It led 70-50 with 2:58 left.

Washington traditionally plays a zone defense and at times it has taken the Sun Devils a half to adapt to that. Although they won the last meeting convincingly, they only led that game at the half 28-26.

Hurley added that the best way to confront that is to attack, get the ball up the court before the defense can set up which is what his team prefers to do anyway.

Devan Cambridge had 18 points the last time the Sun Devils played Washington. The majority of those came on dunks the Sun Devils moved in transition. Three others also finished in double figures.

When ASU last played Washington State it was senior forward Warren Washington with the big game, —18 points on a 9-for-10 effort from the field. He also did a stellar job in defending the Cougars' Mouhamed Gueye, who managed only nine points on eight field goal tries and three free throw attempts.

More:USC powers past Arizona State, handing Sun Devils second straight Pac-12 loss

It's been different players on different nights, a big reason the individual numbers don't jump right out. Four players are averaging double figures, with Desmond Cambridge Jr. at a team-best 13.2, followed by D.J. Horne (11.6), Devan Cambridge (10.5 ppg) and Frankie Collins (10.4 ppg). Washington is close at 8.9 with a team-leading 7.2 rebounds and 2.1 blocks.

"We've been a balanced team so we got to get guys contributing and playing well. That's been our identity at the offensive end," Hurley said. "We've had the most success this year when we move the basketball very well and shared it and were able to get out in the open court. So much is going to depend on how we defend. If we allow teams to shoot 50 percent like the last two teams did, then we're going to struggle to win. If we generate stops, take stop pressure off our offense because our defense is performing then we typically get into a pretty good offensive flow."

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