There was a sequence for Arizona State (2-3) during the first half of Wednesday night’s 75-63 loss against No. 6 Baylor (5-0) in the Bahamas that nearly perfectly summarizes where the team is at through five games.
Up 18-12 and fueled by the outside shooting from the prolific DJ Horne, the Sun Devils appeared primed for another Bobby Hurley non-conference upset special. Forget Kansas. This time, their victim would be the defending national champion Bears in another victory that sends a push notification to college hoops fans around the nation. And this was without their best player, Marcus Bagley, who is rehabbing a knee injury and did not travel with the team.
But this Sun Devil team is still learning to become just that. And from the 13-minute mark until 7:44 left in the first half, the Bears took some pliers and started cutting through the still soft links that connect their opponent, who are trying to onboard nine new players on this roster.
All of a sudden, the Sun Devils began to play as if someone sat on the fast-forward button. After three straight points from the Bears, Jalen Graham turned the ball over trying to do too much.
The next possession down, Jay Heath telegraphed a pass, resulting in another turnover. But Baylor’s Matthew Mayer smoked the layup, keeping the one-point game in favor of the black-clad Sun Devils. After a Baylor second-chance miss, DJ Horne grabbed the rebound, and promptly threw the outlet pass right to Mayer again.
Mayer accelerated past Horne, who was sapped of his momentum, and slammed home a dunk to give the Bears the lead. He may as well have just been leaving the Sun Devils in the dust, as the Bears never looked back.
The sequence of three turnovers in three possession was a small fragment of a first half that saw the Sun Devils turn the ball over 11 times. In a game where they absolutely could not beat themselves, they did it time and again. In all, it was 15 turnovers.
On the spectrum of what the Sun Devils would look like through five games, this was the low end. There is certainly something to be said for how the team competes. There are a lot of players that fight for the extra rebound, or hustle back on defense. Toledo transfer Marreon Jackson had a double-double in rebounds (10) and assists (11).
But in terms of composition, this Division I men’s basketball team too often resembles a pieced-together pickup basketball squad at the local park.
The play of the backcourt has been capricious at best. Jackson struggled from the field and was held without a field goal. Luther Muhammad in his first year with the team was 0 for 4 on 3-pointers, and added just 10 points.
Down low, veteran leader Kimani Lawrence has continued to struggle on free-throws. Alonzo Gaffney was held scoreless and had a minus-16 in his time on the floor. Freshman Enoch Boakye looked the best with three offensive boards and six points, but his clay still needs time to set before he is ready for the starting five.
Arizona State plays a lot of iso-ball. Meaning, they don’t run many plays. Sun Devil coach Bobby Hurley entrusts in his guys to break defenders down with their individual skillsets.
For a defensive coordinator in football, that strategy works out great. Win your matchup and shut the other team down. In basketball so far for Arizona State, not so much. No player has shown the capability to consistently dominate their defender, save for DJ Horne.
Horne, the transfer from Illinois State, has been a revelation. In three of five games, he has shot over 50 percent from beyond the arc. Wednesday night, he was 6 for 9, and finished with 20 points. He was the only player in double-figures.
This is a rebuilding season for Baylor. They are the defending champs essentially in name only. Most of the cornerstones from that roster are now in the NBA. But this is a total reconstruction season for Arizona State, the difference in the amount of time it takes between a rebuild and a reconstruction was on display in the Bahamas.
When the going got tough, Baylor anchored themselves with strong defense and efficient ball movement. When momentum shifted against Arizona State, it reverted to its worse angels and their team play slowed to a halt.
There is still plenty of time, and talent, to get things going this season. But the priority going forward for the Sun Devils must be to get on the same page with each other and establish an identity that has a foundation to it. As evidenced by that turnover-infused meltdown on Wednesday, there is still much work to be done.