Photo by Max Simbron.
The Arizona State Sun Devils finished a tough non-conference schedule with five straight wins and could be expected to finish in the top half of the Pac-12 conference based on their record. But did they show signs in non-conference play of a team capable of being considered the best of the conference's unranked teams?
Arizona State Sun Devils (8-4)
After a year-long sabbatical from coaching, Arizona State coach Charli Turner Thorne is back and her style of play will probably strike Pac-12 fans as familiar.
They're balanced, relatively deep, and they rebound well. In the preseason media poll, they were predicted to finish sixth but after finishing a difficult non-conference schedule pretty well it might seem reasonable to suggest that they're ready to be considered the fifth-best team behind the four nationally ranked teams at the top of the conference - the Real Time RPI power rankings had them in contention for the best of the rest, just ahead of the Utah Utes and Washington Huskies.
Nevertheless, their statistical realities tell a bit of a murkier story than their non-conference record that might throw their position in the conference's pecking order into doubt - winning consistently in conference play might prove to be more difficult than their non-conference record suggests.
Four Factors statistics for Arizona State during non-conference play.
Efficiency statistics for Arizona State during non-conference play.
Narrative description: A slow-paced team that shoots well and can get a number of second chance scoring opportunities. They're balanced and generally move the ball well to find scoring opportunities rather than relying solely on leading scorer Janae Fulcher, but were also one of the conference's more turnover prone teams.
SOS: 56.64 (34th nationally)
Upset wins: N/A
Upset losses: N/A
MVP: Micaela Pickens, G (5'8", Sr., 8.82 MVP)
For a team that has been turnover prone this season, their point guard and second leading scorer has been the key player this season. Although Pickens was not that efficient as a distributor (-1.42 pure point rating), she was a very efficient scorer (57.96% true shooting percentage) during non-conference play in large part because she is the team's best 3-point shooter at 41.7% (second in the conference during non-conference play). Considering that the rest of the team was just 25.80% from the 3-point line without Pickens' shooting, her value as someone who can hit from long-range is increased a bit.
- Arizona State was one of the more efficient scoring teams among Pac-12 teams in non-conference play and unlike some of the other teams who were efficient in non-conference play, the Sun Devils didn't rely on the 3-point shot to do it. They only shot 29.4% in non-conference play from beyond the 3-point arc.
- Pac-12 fans are probably accustomed to this, but Charli Turner-Thorne is not afraid to sub often and during non-conference play no player played more than 25 minutes per game. The result is a team that gets statistical contributions from 8 players, making them one of the deeper teams in the conference.
- Another staple of Arizona State teams has been strong rebounding and this season isn't much different. Their 40.8% offensive rebounding percentage was fourth-best among Pac-12 teams in non-conference play and gives an already efficient scoring team second chance scoring opportunities.
- The Sun Devils share the ball well and it's not necessarily that they're a team that is over-reliant on ball movement to score.
- They turn the ball over a lot, which would seem to run counter to their relatively high adjusted synergy rating. In their last three non-conference losses, ASU gave up no less than 20 points off turnovers. That's a lot of points to give to any opponent.
- Free throw rate isn't always a big deal, but ASU puts opponents on the free throw line a lot. That can either be a result of aggressive defense that forces a lot of turnovers as well (and they do force turnovers) or poor rotations that cause players to foul due to slow rotations. The former would probably be a more positive explanation than the latter.
X-Factor: Janae Fulcher, F (6'3", Sr., 8.67 MVP)
This might seem like an oddity with a team's leading scorer as its X-Factor, but on a turnover-prone team having a high usage leading scorer that turns the ball over on almost 20% of her possessions is something that's hard to ignore.
If she could cut down on those turnovers in conference play, the team would be better off for it and she might even become someone to consider as a 2013 WNBA Draft prospect - she is a high usage (27.28%), high efficiency post player (62.35%) with good size. But there are still two other concerns: she isn't a great free throw shooter - nor does she get to the line often - and she isn't a good offensive rebounder (7.72% offensive rebounding percentage), which isn't always a road block to road success but does present questions about why she isn't better on the offensive boards.
Key question: Will turnovers undermine this team's strengths in Pac-12 play?
There are a number of Pac-12 teams that a) force turnovers and/or b) play faster than the pace ASU would like. If teams can turn games into sloppy, fast-paced affairs they might be able to keep ASU off-balance. However with Fulcher and 6'5" junior post Joy Burke in the paint, there's little question that ASU will win a number of rebounding battles in a conference with a few really strong rebounding teams.
The elite in this conference seem to be relatively established in the minds of most with Arizona State looking like the fifth-best team in the conference, as listed by Real Time RPI's power rankings entering conference play. But rising above fifth might require ASU to do more than they showed in non-conference play.