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If there are moral victories in sports, then count this as one; the Sun Devils came up just short in Friday night's 76-71 loss to the New Mexico Lobos at Wells Fargo Arena. Junior Carrick Felix bounced back from his cold-shooting performance this past Tuesday to lead the Devils in points (20), going three of four from behind the arc and missing just one of his free throws (seven of eight). Kendall Williams (16 points, seven assists, seven rebounds) and Drew Gordon (13 points, nine rebounds) were benched by Lobo Head Coach Steve Alford to start the game but responded by hitting a combined 60% of their shots.
But with improved ball movement and more defensive energy there was still a lot to for Head Coach Herb Sendek to be satisfied with tonight.
"I thought we made improvement," Sendek said. "We were more of a team tonight."
Carrick Felix set the tone for his excellent night by stroking a three on the Sun Devils first attempt. From that very moment, the Sun Devils seemed like a rejuvenated roster, even only two days removed the disastrous home 66-60 home loss to Pepperdine. The Sun Devils were very competitive throughout the first 20 minutes and seemingly had a tremendous amount of momentum following their final shot, another big Felix three (closed out half with 15 points).
"I felt good," Felix said. "I was focused and I was in the right frame of mind."
The Devils remained neck-and-neck with the Lobos, trading blows before back-to-back threes from NMU guard Tony Snell put the visitors up by eight with three and half minutes left to play. Then after two layups from Trent Lockett and Kyle Cain, Chanse Creekmur followed a Keala King missed three with a clutch put back to put ASU down by only two.
Following a few more exchanging of buckets by the teams, ASU was down 71-74 with 23 seconds and remaining and the ball. The Devils gave the ball to their emotional leader, Lockett, despite him not having the best of games (11 points on 3 of 8 shooting). The 6'4" junior got a good look at a three but narrowly missed right, closing the door on Arizona State's chances at mounting a mini-comeback.
"That was a shot I wanted," Lockett said. "I was waiting for it, but it just didn't fall."
One has to wonder though if it would have even came down to that if it wasn't for ASU being lackadaisical with the ball again; the Devils turnover struggles continued Friday, totaling up 19 in the closely contested game.
"Our turnovers just continue to be almost insurmountable," Sendek said. "The quantity and the timing of them make it very difficult on our basketball team; leaves us very little room for error."
The concerning part about that stat was that nearly 75% of those turnovers were generated by ASU's three best ball-handlers: Lockett, King and Chris Colvin.
"It's [Colvin's] first year and point guard isn't [Keala's] natural position," Lockett said. [But] I'm turning the ball over way too much right now as well."
In the end, it's not the outcome the Sun Devils wanted but the vibe from the locker room post game is about as positive as it can be following a defeat.
"It's hard coming off a loss but I feel better," Lockett said. "We really came together more as a team today and we made strides in a lot of areas."
Hopefully the strides continue as the Sun Devils prepare for Fairfield in their opening game of the Old Spice Classic next Tuesday.
The Sun Devils came to play against a Lobo team that beat them 76-62 last season, turning in arguably their most complete game of the year but ultimately coming up short 76-71. Junior Carrick Felix did his part, finishing slightly under his career-high with 20 points and also chipping in a team-high 7 rebounds while hitting 3 threes and going seven of eight in the free throw department. New Mexico had four players in double figures but were lead by solid efforts from Kendall Williams (16 points, seven rebounds, seven assists) and Drew Gordon (13 points and nine rebounds).
Arizona State turned in another proficient performance from the charity strike (18-25) but were yet again handcuffed by their excessive turnover problem (19 in the game). Starters Chris Colvin, Trent Lockett and Keala King combined for 14 of those 19 turnovers in their up-and-down performances. Despite the blunders, the Devils did show improved ball movement even though the assist numbers weren't exactly there (only 10 for the game).
Sendek also surprisingly rotated in eight players throughout the duration of the game, even with the Devils getting in some foul trouble early (Kyle Cain, Keala King and Ruslan Pateev all had three fouls before they went into the locker room for halftime).
ASU was almost able to complete a significant comeback after letting the game slip out their hands in the final ten minutes but a few narrowly missed threes late by King and Lockett sealed their fate.
Although Tuesday's dreadful loss to Pepperdine was by a mere six points, the vibe lingering inside of Wells Fargo Arena post game made the deficit feel closer to 56. But when a so-called "up-tempo" team is held to 34% shooting and zero fast break points by an opponent who finished sixth in the WCC last season, it's easy to see why. Now with a New Mexico team that beat the Sun Devils 76-62 in last year's opener heading into town, it looks like things wont be getting easier anytime soon.
And, on top of it all, this year's Lobo roster might be even better. After leading one of the NCAA's younger squads on court the past two seasons (and still winning back to back Mountain West titles), New Mexico Head Coach Steve Alford now get's the luxury of three seniors, two of which above average big men (Drew Gordon and A.J. Hardeman). This is particularly concerning with the Devils struggling in the low post out of the gates; in game one against a much smaller Montana State lineup, ASU was manhandled in the offensive rebound category allowing 17 and then most recently against Pepperdine, they were only able to score three buckets inside.
Even if the combination of Kyle Cain, Ruslan Pateev and Jordan Bachynski are able to slow down this duo, Keala King and the rest of the guards will still have to worry about Kendall Williams, who scored 15 points against them in last year's matchup in the Pit.
One thing Arizona State does have working for them against this talented trio is timing. In New Mexico's curious loss to New Mexico St. on Wednesday, Gordon and Hardeman went a combined 1 of 10 from the field, totaling only four points and 12 rebounds together. Even worse, Williams didn't sink a single one of his nine attempts, with his five turnovers being the cherry on top of one horrendous performance.
But then again, essentially every Devil not named Trent Lockett are heading into this game on a cold streak of their own. So it's hard to say what advantage, if any, ASU has against this familiar foe, especially considering Trent Lockett also turned in a fantastic 40 minutes (game-high 22 points, 8 rebounds) last time he saw New Mexico and the Sun Devils still managed to lose by fourteen.
Key Matchup: Trent Lockett vs Demetrius Walker- While Lockett might not be asked to guard Walker for the entire time he's on the court, the Sun Devil's emotional leader is the only player, along with Pateev, that remembers Walker's brief time at the Arizona State University (Walker played his freshman year at ASU before transferring to New Mexico; he sat out 2010-2012 due to NCAA transfer rules). Lockett on Walker - "He's going to go come out and show ASU fans what they missed."
What to watch for: Can the Devils run and gun with an experienced fast break team?- Steve Alford has been a coach that gives his Lobos just as much freedom in the offense as Herb Sendek has been striving for with his Devils this year. So will the Devils be able to run with a lineup that's seasoned in their ad-libbing system? Or will the fans at Wells Fargo be forced to watch a team trying to be something it's not yet again?
Media Coverage: Watch the Arizona State men's basketball team for the first time on TV this season on Fox Sports AZ or listen live on the radio at KTAR Sports 620 AM.
Final Prediction: Arizona State 65 - New Mexico 80
Call me naive, but I truly believe this Devils team will get consistently better before everyone turns their calender's to the new year. Unfortunately, this wont be the game to get them back on track against a Lobo team that has a very good chance of taking their frustrations from the New Mexico State upset and channeling it to one solid, bounce back performance. If ASU can at least keep this competitive till the final buzzer, that will be a step in the right direction.
Give credit where credit is due; the Pepperdine Waves kept Arizona State's offense out of rhythm for almost an entire 40 minutes Tuesday night with their suffocating zone defense, strolling out of Wells Fargo Arena with a 66-60 victory. Besides Trent Lockett's game-high 23 points (8-11 shooting), there wasn't much offense to be found for the Sun Devils as they shot a pedestrian 34% from the field, including 25.9% from three. Joshua Lowery lead the Waves in scoring with 13 while Tempe High School graduate and former Gatorade Player of the Year for Arizona Jordan Baker finished the game with seven points.
"We give Pepperdine a great deal of credit," Head Coach Herb Sendek said post-game. "We just never got in any rhythm or sync offensively."
Unfortunately for Sendek and the rest of ASU, the Waves were the epitome of being in in-sync from the opening tip, draining six threes before their first miss from downtown. This forced Sendek to transform his zone defensive scheme on the fly to a more man-to-man approach, something this roster isn't very seasoned in.
"Obviously we're a zone team," Sendek said. "But based on what was happening in the game, we made the switch. I thought it worked rather well for us."
And yes, while it did stiffle the long range shots (the Waves only made two threes after the switch), it only created more free throw opportunities for the Waves with ill-advised penalties. Time and time again, the Devils fouled Pepperdine with the shot clock in its final seconds, a move that Sendek later called the team's "Achilles' heel."
"We sent them to the line unnecessarily," Sendek said. "Our fouling was a significant factor out of the man-to-man."
Along with the Waves 25 second half free throw attempts, the Devils also managed to get to the free throw line more than normal throughout the game, shooting 17-23 from the charity strike. But with getting only three baskets on the inside and sophomore Chanse Creekmur and Junior Carrick Felix, the team's best three-point shooters, combining to shoot 4-14 from beyond, there was nothing working for the Devils to break Pepperdine's pesky zone.
"We didn't [make inside shots] with any degree of regularity and we weren't scoring outside," Sendek said. "It didn't seem like anything came easy to us on offense."
Perhaps the most telling stat of how much ASU struggled against Pepperdine's scheme was this: the Devils scored zero fast break points. But even knowing that running and gunning is his team's bread and butter on offense, Lockett still thought that that statistic could be attributed more to their continued defensive struggles.
"It really comes down to getting stops," Lockett said. "If they're scoring and we're under our bucket [outlet passing] the ball ever time, it's hard to push the ball."
But time wont be on the Sun Devils' side in getting this early-season complications straightened out. The team only gets two days of practice before New Mexico, a team that beat them 76-62 in last year's opener, comes to town.
And Lockett is just as aware as anyone that things might not be getting better anytime soon. After being asked if things get any easier on Friday he swiftly replied "not at all."
Other Game Notes
A late surge by the Devils wasn't enough as Pepperdine came to play Tuessday night, beating Arizona State 66-60 at Wells Fargo Arena. Trent Lockett's 23 points and 9 rebounds couldn't carry the team on a night which saw the Waves shoot 72% (8-11) from behind the arc. Joshua Lowery lead the Waves in scoring with 13, chipping in a game-high eight assists
And the Waves strong point was the Devils biggest weakness. On a night in which Pepperdine made their first six threes, ASU's efforts to retaliate were unsuccessful as they shot 7 for 27 from downtown.
Turnovers were also the story again, at least in the first half which saw ASU commit nine. While they did cut it down to only six in the second half, it was too little too late as the offense went cold as soon as they emerged from the locker room, making only 32% of their buckets.
While the Sun Devils proved that pure talent can beat out execution in last Friday's season opening win against Montana State, they won't be able to rely on that theory for long as the competition gets stiffer. Luckily for Trent Lockett and company, Pepperdine doesn't exactly qualify under the "stiffer competition" category.
The Pepperdine Waves are in the midst of six straight losing seasons and it looks as if they're well on their way to extending that streak despite a 59-50 win against Pomona Pitzer on Saturday (And yes, I had to Google that school to confirm that Pepperdine wasn't just making it up). The Waves are looking to have another team makeover after promoting former player and longtime assistant Marty Wilson to head coach. But unfortunately, Wilson doesn't have much to work with early on.
Pepperdine's top three scorers from last season either graduated (Mychel Thompson), transferred (Keion Bell) or tore their ACL (Lorne Jackson) so this squad may have a difficult time keeping up with teams that like to rack up the points (See: Arizona State).
Left to pick up the slack are three returning starters. There are no standouts but the best player by default would be senior forward Taylor Darby, who had 14 points and six rebounds for the Waves in Saturday's season opener. Corbin Moore is also another name to watch after compiling 10 boards against Pomona Pitzer. Moore is the only true center on the roster at 6'10" which would be an advantage for the Devils if Ruslan Pateev and Jordan Bachynksi could get their acts together.
But Tempe natives and/or Arizona high school basketball fans might be intrigued by the return of point guard Jordan Baker, who earned the Gatorade Player of the Year for Arizona while playing at Tempe High School last year. Averaging 27 points a game as a senior, it's clear that Wilson will have to rely on him early to provide the offense a boost. It will be interesting to see if Baker tries to make his homecoming a memorable one after going 0-3 with four points in 22 minutes in the first game of the year.
(Note: I'd be surpised if Pateev moves back into the starting lineup after Felix's impressive 13 points, three steals and three assists in 37 minutes in the opener)
Key Matchup- Can Chris Colvin rebound after his shaky, seven turnover debut against hometown hero Jordan Baker?
What to watch for: Owning the glass- After allowing 17 second-chance points and 16 offensive rebounds in the 78-72 victory against the much smaller Montana State, can they turn their act around? Or are maroon gold fans doomed to another season of being dominated in that portion of the box score?
Media Coverage: Watch at FoxSportsArizona.com or listen live at KTAR Sports 620 AM.
Final Prediction: Arizona State 81 - Pepperdine 65
Sure, this has the looks of another gimme. But no game can be considered that until this team figures its act out. Luckily, Pepperdine's biggest weakness is ASU's biggest strength: scoring. So while the Devils still may not play their best defense or box out, they still should be able to run the Waves into the ground.
Head Coach Herb Sendek had few complimentary things to say following Friday afternoon's 78-72 season opening victory over Big Sky opponent Montana State. And who can blame him after his Sun Devil squad produced the most turnovers of any team he's coached since being at Arizona State (22).
"We just didn't take care of the ball anywhere near the way we need to," Sendek said. "I don't think we played very smart."
Double that with the fact that the Devils got "annihilated" on the boards giving up 17 offensive rebounds and it's easy to see where Sendek's frustration is coming from.
"I was really disappointed with our effort on the glass," Sendek said. "It seems like [Montana State] shot a much higher percentage than 34% from the field because every time they missed, they got another shot, and sometimes a third shot."
And even though the Sun Devils began practicing precisely four weeks prior Friday's game, Sendek refused to use that as excuse responding "it was [Montana State's] first game too."
It wasn't difficult to see that the team was out of sync from the get-go. After shooting 73.% from the field in the second half of last Saturday's exhibition game at Grand Canyon, the Devils came out flat, sinking only 39% of their first half shots. And if it wasn't for Trent Lockett taking control of the offense in the final minutes (13 points, 5-6 shooting in first half), ASU would have shot a paltry 27% (6 of 22).
"Lockett played an outstanding game today," Sendek said. "He really put us on his shoulders with his toughness."
"I just tried to do whatever the team needed on the floor," Lockett said.
Unfortunately, the offensive funk carried over into the second half, allowing the Bobcats to narrow the 33-21 half time lead with their new found three point stroke. With Montana State breathing down their necks, 41-38, Sendek brought starter Keala King back into the game. The 6'5" do-it-all guard responded almost instantly, totaling up three straight buckets including two big threes that gave the Devils some much-needed breathing room.
"I don't even look at the scoreboard; I just look at the shot clock," King said. "When they were [coming back] I didn't really look at it as we need to play harder. We just have to play our game."
King had 11 of his 16 points in the second half which provided a much-need boost. However, those big buckets weren't the nail in the coffin as the pesky Bobcats continued to hang around led by junior forward Shawn Reid's 19 points and seven rebounds. But clutch free throw shooting by the Sun Devil big men kept Montana State from ever overtaking the lead.
In the end, all was not bad for ASU. They still managed to have all five starters (Chris Colvin, King, Carrick Felix, Lockett, and Kyle Cain) in double figures with Lockett leading the way with his 17 points,10 rebounds and four steals (all team highs). The Devils also managed to keep the tempo of the game in their favor for the most part. The foremost issue was execution as the team's slopiness was on display for a good majority of the 40 minutes. And sure, a win is a win no matter how ugly it may be. But for Sendek knows this type of play can't keep up if the team wants regain that respect that much of their Pac-12 foes lost for them in last year's 12-19 season.
"As the old adage goes, [sometimes] you shoot your own toes off. Right now, we'd be walking around with club feet."
Well, here's to hoping Sendek and his Sun Devils find their footing before next Tuesday's 6:30 pm game against Pepperdine.
Other Game Notes:
Overcoming a sloppy second half, Arizona State won their season opener over the Montana State Bobcats 78-72 Friday afternoon at Wells Fargo Arena. Junior Trent Lockett paced the Devils with 16 points and ten rebounds while sophomore Keala King's 11 second period points helped ASU overcame a half which saw the Bobcats shoot nearly 50% from the three. All five starters finished in double digits for the Devils (Colvin, King, Felix, Lockett and Cain).
In the first half everything seemed to be going ASU's way. Their defense was keeping the Bobcats in check, holding them to only 17.9% shooting from the field and 3-16 behind the arc.
Offensively, the Devils weren't exactly clicking but junior swingman Trent Lockett was getting the tough buckets when they needed them, scoring 13 points and missing only one shot in the process. Iowa State transfer Chris Colvin was showing good command of the offense but the buckets weren't falling as everyone not named Lockett was shooting a combined 6-22 from the field.
And unfortunately, the Devils didn't leave their offensive funk in the locker room with them. That's when the Bobcats began hitting the 3-pointers, cutting the 33-21 halftime lead to only two points in the middle of the second half. But King gave the Devils some breathing room with three straight baskets including two big threes. That gave the Devils the confidence they needed and they never surrendered the lead from there.
Arizona State basketball hopes to climb out of the Pac-12 cellar, starting with their season opener Friday against Montana State.
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