Morning Jac: Sun Devils Looking for Answers
Leaning up against a railing at Dick's Sporting Goods Park in Denver last May, Arizona State head coach Chris Malone didn't even wait for my first question at the conclusion of the MCLA Division I championship game between the Sun Devils and the triumphant Brigham Young team. He just launched right into his opening statement.
"This can't keep happening," he said, referring to ASU's second consecutive loss in the title game. "We've got to do something differently. We've got to do something."
Talking to Malone this week, he feels like he's figured out a couple of things that need to change. The first is pretty obvious: the Sun Devils need to start working from the top of the deck.
"I'm not going to stress this throughout the year, but let's be honest: you want the easiest route possible so you have legs at the end. You want the No. 1 seed," said Malone, who was a fifth seed in '11. "That game we played against Chapman in the quarters was a tough game. We played Michigan in the semis and you ask any coach who has played them, they take everything out of you. The last two years, we lost games that we shouldn't have, and that has hurt us when it comes down to our seed."
The top seed would be great, but as Malone thinks back to last season and a majority of the MCLA tournament – he admitted he still hasn't watched film of the championship game – another, more micro-level need stands out.
"We're one of those teams that can defensively handle the ball well against teams outside of the Top 5 or 6, but then we get on the field with the other guys – those teams are a little bit better, more athletic and smarter and the game is a little faster," he said. "Our defensive guys have to be able to play faster and make better decisions when they have the ball in their stick. They have to know what they are going to do with it before they get it. I think our guys hesitated too much in the bigger games against tough opponents. If you watched us play Chapman in the quarterfinals, we couldn't clear the ball the entire fourth quarter. I can't remember against Michigan, but against BYU we definitely struggled clearing the ball. You just can't do that."
It's an adroit observation. The Sun Devils came up with plenty of stops against all of the teams they played with a stingy defense, but they could never consistently transition the ball to their potent offensive unit. It would have cost ASU in the semifinals against Michigan had it not been for a superb performance by junior goalie Dylan Westfall (who was credited with nine saves, but likely had double that).
Narrowing the gap between understanding the problem and solving it with be the challenge for a team that should once again be near the top of the polls.
"My first year (in '08), we had some guys who could handle the ball pretty well. In 2010 and 2011, I felt like we usually had a pole out there who didn't handle the ball that well," said Malone. "We can't put guys on the field who can't handle the ball. When we have our first team meeting on Sept. 9, and I bring those things up, guys will listen because the bottom line is if we can't clear the ball against the big boys, we're not going to win."
Despite the loss of megawatt star power in All-Americans Eric Nelson and Ryan Westfall, Malone believes he has a deeper team that will be just as dangerous as the last two seasons. "I don't think we have one person who could fill each of their shoes, but as a group we can," he said. "I feel confident with this group." At this point, ASU is the most likely team in the MCLA to end BYU's reign.
Malone's just hoping he has figured out the answers after the second year, and doesn't have to stand alone again in the runner-up circle pondering what went wrong.