Arizona State basketball faces tough test against Syracuse zone – AZCentral.com


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ASU coach Bobby Hurley discusses how proud and happy he is that the Sun Devils received an at-large bid for the NCAA Tournament on Sunday.

In some ways, given Arizona State’s up-and-down season, it’s fitting the Sun Devils open the NCAA Tournament in the First Four against Syracuse.

ASU has struggled all season against the zone. It’s a reason the Sun Devils crumbled during Pac-12 action, falling from the top of the national polls to the bottom of a weak conference. Now they face Syracuse, whose entire basketball culture is built around the zone. Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim has run it for decades.

“Obviously, everyone knows they do it as well as anybody,” ASU coach Bobby Hurley said. “We’re going to have to work hard the next two days against it and try to simulate it the best we can. I think the one thing we have in our favor is a lot of teams have zoned us in league play, so we have the experience of playing against a zone-oriented team.”

ASU has history against the Orange. During the Sun Devils’ NCAA Tournament trip in 2009, they faced Syracuse in the second round in Miami. That was Herb Sendek’s best season. He had a team featuring sophomore James Harden and senior Jeff Pendergraph, but they still couldn’t do much against Syracuse’s length.

The Pac-12 this season struggled defensively so nearly the entire conference played zone. First-year coach Mike Hopkins – a longtime Syracuse assistant – ran a 2-3 zone at Washington. In addition, Colorado’s Tad Boyle, a career man-to-man coach, went to zone out of necessity.

Syracuse this season ranks 11th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. The Orange rank 14th nationally at defending shots inside the arc and 50th at shots outside it. 

No more pressure

Throughout the Pac-12 season, ASU lost some of its magic. The Sun Devils didn’t shoot as well. Their ball movement wasn’t as crisp. Their chemistry suffered. By season’s end, they looked like a team that was worried about playing itself out of March Madness.

Now that they’re in, Hurley hopes that pressure evaporates.

“I hope so,” he said. “(In practice,) I just saw a bunch of guys that are hungry and want this opportunity. In these scenarios, when you got great guards that can make plays it helps in these tournaments. It didn’t help us as much (in the Pac-12 Tournament) against Colorado but Colorado shot (13 of 21) from 3, which a lot of teams don’t do, and a lot of things kind of worked against us in that game.”

They’re ready for a fresh start.

“I think we came full circle,” Hurley said. “No one thought anything of us coming into the year, really. We had kind of middle-of-the-road expectations. We made such a big splash. We got all the way to the top, and then we started getting close to the bottom, but we survived. We pushed through. We lost a lot of close games, went through a lot of things, but now we have a chance for anyone who would question whether we should be in the field we have a chance to prove ourselves.”

Tough scheduling

Over five years as a head coach – two at Buffalo, three in Tempe – Hurley always has scheduled tough during the non-conference season. In fact, at times, others have had to caution him against trying to make it too difficult.

Over the past two seasons, ASU has played non-conference contests against Kentucky, Purdue, San Diego State, Xavier, Kansas State, St. John’s, Kansas and Vanderbilt.

Had ASU not made this season’s NCAA field, Hurley was asked if he would change his scheduling philosophy.

“I would’ve considered having a little more balance,” he said. “I just appreciate that the committee is true to what they try to get teams to do. They want teams to go play hard games. And if you do that, then you’ll be rewarded for it. I’m glad our schedule is set up next year in a very similar way.”

ASU next season will play in a holiday tournament in Las Vegas. The Sun Devils also will host Kansas and travel to Vanderbilt.

Personal emotions

Before the team left for Ohio, Hurley looked relieved. It was clear he had sweated out the final days leading up to Selection Sunday. It had taken a toll.

“You put yourself through hell, and I put us in that position, unfortunately, where we had to scramble and we didn’t close out some games,” Hurley said.

Hurley compared the experience to what he felt during his second season at Buffalo. He had guided the Bulls to the 2015 Mid-American Conference tournament championship game, putting the program in position for its first NCAA Tournament bid. First, Buffalo had to win.

“That whole day – it was like a 9 p.m. game – I really put myself through something that day,” Hurley said.

This was worse.

“This was multiple days,” Hurley said, “just because of us losing early in Vegas and then having to just wait it out.”

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Contact Doug Haller at 602-444-4949 or at doug.haller@arizonarepublic.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/DougHaller.


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