West Coast Wednesday: Experience Helped Build Exciting Basketball at Arizona State

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Arizona State basketball has, thus far, been immune to the rough start plaguing Pac-12 this season. The Sun Devils head into Friday’s Basketball Hall of Fame Classic the conference’s sole undefeated; its highest ranked team; and, arguably, as one of the most exciting teams in college basketball.

Arizona State has flourished with an uptempo, high-scoring style that ranks No. 6 in adjusted offensive efficiency, and second in the nation in effective field-goal percentage per KenPom.com. Speaking with Sun Devils head coach Bobby Hurley for my The Sports Xchange preview of Friday’s matchup with St. John’s, Hurley said he had a sense this Arizona State team could be special during the team’s summer tour of Spain and Italy.

“We had a foreign tour, and our July workouts…the talent level was just night and day to anything I’ve had since I’ve been at Arizona State,” he said, touching on a crucial point. “A lot of it is the seniors continuing to get better. They continue to set the bar very high in our workouts.”

Fueling the Sun Devils’ nearly 93-point per game average is a backcourt featuring three seniors: Tra Holder, Shannon Evans and Kodi Justice.

Such a luxury is increasingly rare in today’s college game, but has not lost its value. Juxtapose the initial success of Arizona State basketball against the struggles a talented albeit young rival Arizona faced through the first month, and the importance of cultivating chemistry stands out.

Justice credited “mature freshmen” blending into the roster of experienced players. And, “with us three seniors, it’s been going well so far,” he said.

On-court experience combines with increasing bench experience for Hurley, now in his third season at Arizona State. His fingerprints are becoming increasingly clear on the program, with the Sun Devils starting to implement the offensive style that made Hurley’s Buffalo teams successful.

There’s also an element of Hurley’s playing style from Duke evident in Arizona State’s offense, particularly in the rise of Holder. He sets the table both as a passer with adept court vision, averaging 5.1 assists per game, but is the Sun Devils’ best scorer since James Harden.

Justice said Hurley’s willingness to dictate approach to the players’ abilities has unlocked Arizona State’s offensive proficiency — an example of Hurley taking facets of his own playing career to apply to his coaching.

“You rely a lot on your instincts and your feel for the game, hopefully to have your finger on the pulse of the game, and how it’s being played,” Hurley said. “You kind of rely on your game, all the places you played and everyone you played for.”

Much-Needed Wins for the Pac-12

Arizona’s 0-3 performance at the Battle 4 Atlantis; Oregon finishing 1-2 in a virtual home-court advantage at the PK-80; UCLA underwhelming against an unimpressive schedule, USC dropping back-to-back decisions to Texas A&M and SMU; the early-season failures for the Pac-12 proved plentiful.

While the conference has ample scrubbing to improve its reputation before Selection Sunday, this week provided some relief. Arizona handed Texas A&M its first loss in a wildly competitive game, in which neither team led by more than six points.

Washington stunned Kansas in a virtual road game Wednesday night, 74-65, for what might be the most important Pac-12 victory of the season. 2017-18 tipped off with expectations for Arizona, UCLA and USC to represent in the NCAA Tournament — and that should be the case still, despite early stumbles — but some uncertainty as to which other teams might emerge.

Certainly Arizona State has risen to that mix, perhaps even becoming the Pac-12’s team to beat. With Washington, however, the Pac-12 just might have its spoiler.

The Huskies did not look especially menacing early, struggling against low-major opponents Seattle and UC Davis. Washington’s losses were forgivable, coming against a pair of potential NCAA Tournament teams in Providence and Virginia Tech. However, the Huskies were not at all competitive against the Hokies.

Beating second-ranked Kansas suggests this team is starting to jell under first-year coach Mike Hopkins. Jaylen Nowell looks poised for big things in Pac-12 play.

The conference collectively has the opportunity for more reputation-fixing wins in the coming weekend. Friday’s event at Staples Center pits Arizona State against a one-loss St. John’s, and USC against one-loss Oklahoma. Hurley said he believes St. John’s will be an NCAA Tournament team, which would further pad the already impressive resume Arizona State basketball is putting together.

Washington follows its marquee win over Kansas with a game against Gonzaga, while Arizona’s chaser to beating Texas A&M is a home date with Alabama.

Mountain West Rising

The Mountain West sent just one team to each of the last two NCAA Tournaments, but the mid-major conference that just a few years ago had surpassed the Pac-12 in overall quality is quietly enjoying a resurgence early in 2017-18.

The MWC has a Top 25 team in Nevada, and despite an overtime loss at Texas Tech on Tuesday, the Wolf Pack have an opportunity to score a signature victory Friday at Staples Center. Nevada’s matchup with a fellow ranked opponent, TCU, caps the night’s tripleheader. I will be on-scene pounding coffees throughout the night.

KenPom.com ranks five MWC teams in the Top 80, a vast improvement from 2016-17 when just two made that cut. What’s more, Nevada currently sits No. 33 in the KenPom rankings; the Pack topped the Mountain West at No. 54 a season ago.

Surprise the greatest surprise from that group of five is Boise State. The Broncos have just one loss, which came to Iowa State at the Puerto Rico Tip-Off last month. They’ve since scored wins over Oregon on one of the most wild finishes you will see in this college basketball season:

…and an 87-53 deconstruction of Loyola Chicago last week. That win suddenly has *much* greater significance for Boise State.

A season after he earned All-Conference recognition, Chandler Hutchinson has upped his all-around game. He leads the Broncos in both rebounds and assists, and is second in scoring.