In describing Arizona State University’s recent slump -- in which they’ve lost 5 of their last 6 games including their first three Pac-10 games -- coach Charli Turner Thorne recently referred to the Sun Devils as "a young team trying too hard".
Watching their 62-56 road loss to the University of Washington last night added meaning to Turner Thorne’s assessment.
First of all, Arizona State is clearly not a "bad" team – there is plenty of talent on the court at any given moment. They have very good post play and are among the best rebounding teams in the conference. However, they just never seemed to bring it all together to establish any sort of rhythm for more than a few moments.
To elaborate on the notion of "trying too hard", there was a profound sense that there is something missing on the floor, as though the pieces were assembled to support some galvanizing "franchise player" that isn’t present.
Of course, that is the case with Arizona state to some extent: they lost point guard Briann January to the WNBA and senior point guard Dymond Simon is out for the season with an ACL injury. As described in their media guide, it’s as though they had the luxury of having two franchise players last year and were then stripped of that to start this season. Losing local star Markisha Patterson to injury as a well certainly hasn’t helped. The result is a team that’s searching for answers
"We basically have a whole new team trying to compete in the Pac-10, which I feel is a conference in which everyone is better," said Turner Thorne after the Washington game last night. "Cal’s kinda going through a little bit of what we’re going through – they’re young as well. But they have all three of their starting guards back. We don’t quite have that luxury. And it shows – we’re inconsistent…they’re trying to figure it out, they haven’t figured it out yet."
Whether due to youthful inexperience or lacking chemistry, the biggest problem for ASU seems to be the lack of consistency that Turner Thorne describes. It’s not just game to game or half to half, but possession to possession and play to play.
The result has been scrappy wins, but ragged performance.
Sluggish play, "awful" results
Just after @UW_WBB tweeted that there was "lots of sluggish play" with 15 minutes left in the second half, the game almost grinded to a halt for Arizona State University.
"Sluggish" would have been the most gracious way to describe what ensued.
During the following nine minute stretch, ASU went 3-9, had five turnovers (two travels, a bad pass out of bounds, dribbling through traffic, and a pass directly to a UW defender), and somehow managed to come back to life after a jumper by leading scorer Danielle Orsillo from the wing bounced off the backboard short of hitting the rim.
To their credit, the turnovers in last night’s game did not quite pile up the way they did in the previous 5 games in their slump – they turned the ball over on 26% of their possessions last night, compared to a 48% first half turnover percentage against UCLA on Sunday, a 39% first half turnover percentage against USC on New Year’s Day, and 37.29% turnover percentage against Texas A&M in December.
What kept ASU in the game last night was continued "sluggish" play from the University of Washington, which averages the most turnovers per game in the conference: UW had 6 of their 11 second-half turnovers during that stretch, including three traveling violations.
However, during that extended period of futility, rooting interests no longer mattered – it was just hard to watch. The choppy play was compounded by the fact that UW – the worst rebounding team in the conference by almost any standard – outrebounded a strong rebounding ASU team 31-29. Not even capitalizing on a strength that mirrors an opponent's weakness is certainly cause for concern.
And of course, the outcome was the same – a 5th loss in the last 6 games against a Washington team with justifiably low expectations entering conference play.
"It’s awful, it’s horrible," said Turner Thorne with an exasperated but almost matter-of-fact tone about their 0-3 start to open conference play. "We’re all very proud. We have very high expectations at Arizona State. We all were ready for a challenging year – we knew we didn’t have Dymond and Markesha Patterson. But we absolutely did not expect this."
However, when you look closely at the type of mistakes the Sun Devils are making, it becomes more clear that it’s not simply a matter of lacking talent but the issue of consistency and discipline that Turner Thorne describes.
They had seven traveling violations during the game and a number of errant passes, many of which were just the result of forcing action that wasn’t there or doing things that
"We have a tendency to just not let things come to us," said Turner Thorne. "When we execute, I think we’re a very good basketball team and we don’t do that enough. And – where’s a wall? I’ll pound my head against it – it’s just a matter of hitting low enough to a point where they’ll dig out and change. You’ve seen us: we’re just undisciplined. We’ll have a couple of great possessions and then we just throw the ball to the other team."
When UW switched to zone defense to try to stop ASU’s post players – a situation in which discipline is even more important – it got worse. As a team that is 9th in the Pac-10 in 3 point percentage, they were unable to stretch the zone allowing UW to play off shooters and swarm post players, both contesting shots and limiting ASU’s offensive rebounding strength.
Worst of all from a coach’s perspective, during that second half stretch they were doing things they were explicitly told not to do.
"We don’t wanna shoot off the first pass," said Turner Thorne. "We don’t wanna drive the baseline of a zone off the first pass. We were doing things that we absolutely positively say, ‘You are not allowed to do.’ So this team is talented enough to win its conference, but they have to be more focused."
As disastrous as the picture that Turner Thorne paints sounds, there is still that glimmer of hopeful frustration stemming from the fact that the team is indeed talented. Even with the missing pieces, there is hope that this team can win.
So how does Tuner Thorne propose turning this thing around? Communication.
The search for the discipline to win starts with communication
"You saw the lack of talking where Becca was supposed to switch out on one of those threes at the end where Whitcomb got the wide-open three," said Turner Thorne of Whitcomb’s fifth three pointer of the game with 3:38 left in the second half that pushed UW’s lead to 54-46. "Those things continue to bite us in the butt where we just aren’t consistent."
Conversely Whitcomb was one of the most vocal players on the floor for Washington, on both offense and defense. She was loud enough to be heard from media row, whether calling for a ball when she got open or calling out a screen on defense.
Turner Thorne made a direct link between that type of communication and consistency.
"We’re working on all these things – we’re worked on talking, playing better together," said Turner Thorne. "You’ve gotta be conistent to win. We don’t consistently talk and play our position defense. We don’t consistently execute…We’re right there, btu obviously we could have a 10 or 20 point swing if we actually would just do things I think we’re capable of doing, but do them every possession."
Despite ASU’s losses,Washington also recognized that ASU is capable of doing more -- even out of sync, their strong defense and post play is still an asset for the team to build on.
"They’re still the same in that they still bring that defensive energy, they have real quick guards, tall posts," said Whitcomb, who acknowledged that losing January was a big loss. "They’re definitely a quality team still, but you have to acknowledge the fact they lost some good players too so they are rebuilding. But I still think they’ll do great in the Pac-10 this year."
The question is whether they can turn it around after a rough start.
Turner Thorne might be the right person for the job.
"Charli will get those girls together, I’m not worried about that," said Washington coach Tia Jackson. "And we do still have to go into their place and I know they’re not going to forget this and we have to go in knowing that."
Just to put things in perspective, Turner Thorne has experience making the best of seemingly dismal situations in the past.
Last season, ASU started out 0-2 in conference play before going 15-1 the rest of the way en route to an impressive tournament run. When she took over as head coach of ASU in 1996, she inherited a team that had only made one tournament appearance in 13 years.
She has experience making things happen and every reason to remain positive as she tries to turn this into a young team playing too hard to a young team playing well.
"We’ll try to stay positive and keep teaching and working hard," said Turner Thorne. "We got a lot of really good young players – I think our posts are doing a lot of good things. It’s just hard because the perimeter game is so inexperienced that we can’t really capitalize on our post play. But hopefully we’ll get better each and every week."