PULLMAN – Scorching starts followed by prolonged skids. The 2017-18 basketball season to some extent has followed the same pattern for Washington State and Arizona State.
Both assembled some of the best starts in college basketball. Both have met a harsher reality in Pac-12 play and head into the second half of the conference season hoping to recapture the form that made them a few of the game’s surprise stories in November.
The Cougars reeled off six wins and flew home with a trophy after beating Saint Joseph’s, now 13th-ranked Saint Mary’s and San Diego State at the Wooden Legacy tournament in Fullerton, California. WSU collected Top 25 votes the next week, but UC Davis knocked the Cougars off their pedestal with a 14-point win in Pullman and Ernie Kent’s program has managed just three wins since – one of those coming in the Pac-12.
ASU’s run lasted about a month longer and the Sun Devils’ national profile grew with it. ASU skated through nonconference play, taking a 12-0 record and the nation’s No. 3 ranking into a Pac-12 opener against rival Arizona. The Sun Devils suffered a six-point loss in Tucson, followed by a gut-wrenching overtime defeat to Colorado. A win-loss-win-loss trend has persisted since.
If that pattern continues Sunday, the 25th-ranked Sun Devils (16-6, 4-6), who lost Thursday at Washington, would be in a good position to knock off the Cougars (9-12, 1-8) in a 1 p.m. game in Pullman (ESPNU).
In Joe Lunardi’s latest Bracketology projections, ASU is a projected No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament, although that came prior to a loss to the Huskies. At this stage, the Sun Devils are still in good position to qualify for their first tournament since 2014, although a loss to the Cougars, who carry an RPI of 163, could be a major blow.
For half of the nonconference slate, the Cougars also looked like a team that could make a run at NCAA qualification for the first time since 2008. Now the expectations have shifted and merely finishing better than .500 would be considered a superb season for a young WSU team.
The Cougars still lead the Pac-12 in 3-point field goals (241) but might be considered one-dimensional on offense because they also rank last in baskets inside the arc (308) and free throws made (222). WSU is the only team with fewer than 300 free throws.
In a 100-72 loss to Arizona, Robert Franks improved his season scoring average to 18 points per game (sixth in Pac-12) with 25 points. Franks was 5 of 7 from 3-point range, meaning the junior has hit 15 3-pointers in his last two games at Beasley Coliseum.
Offensive production was hard to come by for ASU against UW’s 2-3 zone, but despite a 64-point showing in Seattle, the Sun Devils still rank 14th in college basketball at nearly 85 ppg.
Guard Tra Holder accounts for 18 ppg (tied for fourth in Pac-12). Another member of Hurley’s backcourt, Shannon Evans II, scores 16.5 ppg (10th).