Arizona State guard Carrick Felix played well against New Mexico but it wasn't enough to life the Sun Devils over the Lobos. Photo by Robert Gonzalez.

Sun Devils Turn In Best Effort Of The Season in 76-71 Loss To New Mexico

While they weren't able to walk away with the win, Arizona State still impressed fans with their most complete performance of the season Friday night.

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Arizona State Vs New Mexico: Signs Of Progress In Narrow Loss

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."

With Kyle Cain, Keala King, and Ruslan Pateev picking up three first half fouls each, sophomore Jordan Bachynski started the second half for the Devils. But that didn't slow them down one bit.

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.

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  • It seems Ruslan Pateev is slowly working himself out of the rotation. After three fouls and one turnover in eight sporadic minutes in the first half, Sendek elected to keep the 7'0" junior on the bench for the final 20 minutes.
  • The flashes of brilliance that Chris Colvin showed in the scrimmage and exhibition game against GCU are almost faint memories by now. Through three games, he's averaging only 0.86 assists to every one turnover and making only 28% of his shots from the field. Sendek on Colvin's slow acclimation to the Sun Devil's offense- "We're trying to get him comfortable as he makes the transition here."
  • After preaching all off season about having to use the entire bench with only nine scholarship players on his roster, Sendek had just eight players see the court Friday night despite the Pateev, King and Cain each having three first half fouls. Perhaps Sendek's bench will shorter than advertised in close games against solid opponents.
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Arizona State Vs New Mexico Preview: When The Going Gets Tough...

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. 

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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.

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