The gap between the top of the Pac-12 and the Sun Devils is much closer than it’s been in recent years.
The Sun Devil hoop squad has played some great basketball this season, and Herb Sendek’s team has won 75% of their games (18-6 overall record).
Jahii Carson has emerged as a legit star, and will likely ride an excellent sophomore campaign (averaging 19 points, 4.7 assists, 4.3 rebounds) into the upcoming NBA draft. Center Jordan Bachynski recently broke the Pac-12 record for blocks (279) during a 7-swat overtime win over Oregon State.
The Sun Devils rank third in the Pac-12 behind UCLA and #2 Arizona. Statistically, Arizona State is right up there with the Bruins and Wildcats. ASU ranks in the top five (Pac-12) in scoring offense, scoring defense, three point field goal percentage and assist to turnover ratio.
However, if the Sun Devils want to make the jump from leader of the losers to contender, they need to improve greatly in one area.
The Devils are shooting just 69.5% free-throws on the year and rank behind cellar dwellers Oregon, Oregon State and Utah at the charity stripe. It is hurting the Sun Devils, and I believe this is what is holding Jahii and crew back from their true potential.
Carson himself shoots only 70.6% from the line, hardly a proud percentage for a star guard. He’s a slicing, score-first guard, a style that warrants a lot of free-throws. Lowly efforts like 4-8 against USC, 3-6 against Stanford and 7-12 against Oregon aren’t helping the Devils. Carson has shown that he can get to the line. He just has to capitalize when there.
Fellow guard Jermaine Marshall is a respectable 75% from the line, however Shaquille McKissic and Jonathan Gilling are 66% and 63% respectively. Bachynski, a seven foot center, ranks third (69%) in FT% among Devil starters.
In comparison, UCLA has three players who have played in more than 20 games and have a FT% above 75%. UA has three as well. ASU has none.
Impact on the Devils
To understand the impact of ASU’s free-throw troubles, you have to understand how important free-throws are to a team with their weaknesses. Rebounding has not been the Devils’ strong suit meaning they have fewer scoring opportunities than their opponents. Free-throws are the easiest way to add points, and ASU must start cashing in.
As of February 3rd, the Sun Devils rank last in rebounding defense, sixth in rebounding offense and last in rebounding margin. A rebounding margin of -.04 means that on an average night, they lose the battle on the glass.
Meanwhile, UA dominates the conference with a +9.5 margin, and leads the Pac-12 in both offensive and defensive rebounding. It is less essential for the Wildcats to shoot a high free-throw percentage because their rebounding gets them so many more possessions. The Wildcats play superb defense as well by leading the Pac-12 in scoring defense by 6.2 ppg, and they hold opponents to a shooting average of 37.6% from the field.
While UA is far and away better than ASU in team defense and rebounding, UCLA separates itself through assists and steals. The Bruins lead the Pac-12 in both categories, while ASU lags behind at 6th in assists and last in steals.
The Bruins’ ability to make steals means more possessions for their sharp-shooting offense (2nd in field goal percentage and scoring offense, 4th in three point percentage). Their high assist rate means they can score without going to the line.
It is unrealistic to expect the Sun Devils to match UA’s dominant team defense and rebounding, or instantly begin stealing and dishing at the rate UCLA does. However, improving their efforts from the line would allow the Devils to get the most out of their offensive opportunities and make up for their deficiencies in other areas.
The gap between the top tier competition in the Pac-12 and the Sun Devils is much closer than it’s been in recent years. If ASU improves in the free-throw department, that gap will continue to shrink.
See you Friday night.
ASU vs. Arizona – Friday, 7:00 PM, Wells Fargo Arena
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