TEMPE, Ariz. – Arizona State used to try to confound basketball opponents with its matchup 1-3-1 zone defense. Now, the Sun Devils using a more direct approach: man to man.
The arrival of point guard Jahii Carson has had the most to do with the Sun Devils’ turnaround this season, but coach Herb Sendek’s shift to a man-to-man defense also has played an integral part in their 14-3 record as they prepare to face rival Arizona, ranked seventh, on Saturday afternoon.
Arizona State has limited opponents to a 38.4 shooting percentage, the 16th-lowest percentage in Division I, and that number is even better (36.9) in four conference games. Both numbers are lower than any the Sun Devils posted in Sendek’s previous six seasons at the school.
“Our defense, for the most part, has been pretty solid,” Sendek said. “Obviously, not perfect. Obviously, still has a lot of room to get better. But, arguably, it has been the most consistent thing we’ve done. That’s been there for us, night in and night out.”
The man-to-man seems ideally suited for Arizona State’s personnel, a fit Sendek and new assistant coach Larry Greer identified immediately. Carson and forward Carrick Felix have the quickness and athleticism not only to be effective on-ball defenders but also to lend help from the weak side, and center Jordan Bachynski, 7-foot-2, has been a forceful presence in the paint.
At times in the matchup zone, Bachynski and 7-foot Ruslan Pateev were asked to rotate out on shooters on the wing or in the corner, leaving smaller players to defend the basket and fight for a rebound. Now, they can provide a last line of defense. Bachynski is second in the NCAA with 76 blocked shots, and the Sun Devils already have 128 blocks, more than they had in any of the previous six seasons. Arizona State does not overplay on the perimeter and expect Bachynski to clean things up at the rim, but he is there if needed.
“Herb has done a great job playing man-to-man,” said Arizona coach Sean Miller, who was an assistant to Sendek for seven seasons at Miami (Ohio) and North Carolina State. “He puts Bachynski in a great position to affect the game. On the defensive end, Bachynski is a real difference-maker. They have become a very good defensive team.”
The man defense also enables the 6-6 Felix to track a body instead of an area, a move that has proved beneficial all year. Felix negated 6-6 Oregon small forward E.J. Singler last Sunday, limiting Singler to one field goal in nine attempts in the Ducks’ 68-65 victory. Felix also had the primary defensive assignment on 6-7 Colorado power forward Andre Roberson the week before and limited him to five points on 2-of-10 shooting from the field in Arizona State’s 65-56 victory. Roberson did have 13 rebounds.
“I think the thing about defense is being aggressive but not too aggressive,” said Felix, who readies himself by studying film of the man he will be guarding. “Being smart, mostly. Knowing what your guy likes to do. Trying to basically think before he’s thinking. Think about his move before he’s even thinking about doing it.”
Oregon coach Dana Altman, whose Ducks beat both Arizona State and Arizona last week, put it simply enough: “They were well-prepared. They took away some of the things we wanted to do.”
That brought a smile from Felix.
“That is huge for us, because that means we actually locked in and paid attention to our scouting report on personnel and did what we needed to do,” he said. “I know there are going to be nights where my shot is not going to fall, so, definitely, defense is something I take pride in.
“During that (Oregon) game, I had a job. That game, it wasn’t to be a scorer but to be a lock-down defender. I did what my team needed me to do. Defense wins games.”
Arizona State saw the positive effects of the change of strategy early in fall practice.
“We knew right away that it was going to be effective because of our personnel,” Felix said. “With Jahii being the quickest point guard in the Pac-12, having Jordan be 7-2, me with my athletic ability . . . It didn’t take a while to get comfortable with playing man, because we have all played it our whole lives. It was something that came to us. It’s an everyday thing.”
Sendek praised Felix this week for not only his mental preparation but also his mental toughness. Felix is averaging 33.4 minutes a game, and that can take a toll when a player is active on both ends of the court.
“When you are playing a lot of minutes and it would be easy to take a breather,” Sendek said, “you still find a way to battle through that screen and make a play.”
That is Felix, who already is prepping for a likely matchup against Arizona small forward Solomon Hill, 6-6, who is averaging 13.6 points a game and has made 45 percent of his 3-point attempts.
“It definitely will be a good matchup. We are both big wings. We are both aggressive players. We kind of have a similar game,” Felix said. “I definitely will be watching some film on him, just to brush up on some of his moves and what his tendencies are,” Felix said.
Guarding a player such as Hill fires him up,” Felix said.
“I have a tremendous opportunity ahead of me — not just playing in the game, but to go against a player like Solomon Hill,” Felix said. “Obviously, he is an NBA-type player. I just have to be ready. It’s going to be a battle for all 40 minutes.”