Arizona State is off to its best start in 37 years, scoring points at a lightning-fast clip and looking nothing like the basketball team that only won 15 games a season ago.
So what’s the difference between then and now? Let’s have legendary actor Bruce Campbell explain:
The 16th-ranked Sun Devils (7-0) have the luxury of sporting an experienced back court made up of three seniors, with Shannon Evans, Tra Holder and Kodi Justice combining for 56.3 points, 12.2 assists and 5.2 steals per game. Entering Thursday, there were 105 Division I seniors averaging at least 15 points; ASU has three while no other school has more than two.
“The seniors have been great leaders, playing at an extremely high level,” third-year ASU coach Bobby Hurley said. “They’re probably as good as any three players playing at the guard spot in the United States. They can really do it in a variety of ways.”
Holder (22.6 points per game), Evans (18.7) and Justice (15.0) are each shooting at least 42 percent from 3-point range while Evans and Holder have 36 assists each. They’ve all recorded at least 10 steals.
Evans and Holder also get to the line a fair amount, too, driving the lane with the goal of either getting to the rim, drawing the foul or dishing to an open teammate. That aggressive approach has produced 92.7 points per game, fourth best in the country, with at least 90 in each of ASU’s first six games.
“The lanes are open because we have the ability to shoot the ball,” Holder said. “Shannon, Kodi and myself, we like to create in the paint for ourself and others.”
This trio was on the court together quite a bit last season, when ASU often went with a four-guard lineup that included Torian Graham. But while that group played with a similar level of energy, it didn’t produce nearly the same results because the Sun Devils lacked a complementary front court, thus the 15-18 record and dreadful minus-7.1 rebounding margin in 2016-17.
ASU is at plus-3.1 on the boards this season because of 6-foot-8 redshirt freshman Romello White and junior 6-10 college transfer De’Quon Lake. White, who sat out 2016-17 after not fully qualifying academically, averages 15.7 points and 9.3 rebounds and is getting to the line 10.5 times per game, while Lake has chipped in 11.1 points and 7.4 rebounds per game.
Lake and White have combined to shoot 73.8 percent (59 of 80), many of those baskets coming after one of the guards draws most of the defense their way.
“My front court is much better,” Hurley said. “That’s been a huge difference. I’ve been very pleased with how our offense is functioning and how it’s attacking. Not relying solely on the perimeter game.”
To this point, ASU is getting by with a seven-man rotation but reinforcements are on their way. Mickey Mitchell, a 6-7 sophomore forward who transferred from Ohio State, becomes eligible in time for Sunday’s game at No. 2 Kansas. And 6-7 freshman forward Kimani Lawrence is set to return later this month after suffering a stress fracture in his foot right before the season began.
“Those two guys are big, versatile wings that will improve our rebounding,” Hurley said.
The 7-0 start has included two notable victories, over Kansas State and then-No. 15 Xavier on back-to-back nights in Las Vegas last month. Two more significant challenges are on the horizon, Friday night against St. John’s at the Basketball Hall of Fame Classic in Los Angeles followed by a trip to Kansas two days later.
Ready for the weekend 😈🔜 pic.twitter.com/KODJ7u3eVk
— Sun Devil MBB (@SunDevilHoops) December 6, 2017
ASU struggled in such high-profile matchups last season, losing by 46 against Kentucky in the Bahamas and by 33 to Purdue in New York City while going 3-6 on the road in Pac-12 play. Quite often in those games, Hurley could be seen lighting into officials in what he said was an effort to try to level an uneven playing field.
“I had to focus on the officials more to fight for our team,” he said. “We had a disadvantage from a talent standpoint, not having a complete team. We’re closer to having a lot different options. I just have to not get in the way of what’s been happening.”