The upset minded Sun Devils (14-4, 3-2) came up short in their attempt to knock off rival Arizona last Saturday before a sellout crowd at Wells Fargo Arena, falling to the Wildcats 71-54.
Jahii Carson led the Sun Devils in scoring with 22 points – his third consecutive game with 20 or more points –but ultimately came up short as the Wildcats rallied late after a fourth personal foul whistled against Carson limited the playmaker down the stretch.
“Hats off to those guys," Carson said after practice on Tuesday when addressing the media. "They came out focused. We beat them last year when I think they underestimated us. This year they knew that we had a good record and have a nice buzz, they have a nice buzz, so they came out ready. But I don't think they really beat us, I think we beat ourselves mostly, mentally."
Over his last three games, Carson is averaging 20.7 points and is shooting 50% from the field.
Despite the loss, one encouraging sign for the Sun Devils was another solid performance by Carson’s backcourt mate, Evan Gordon. Gordon followed up a 17 point effort against Oregon with 14 of his own against the Wildcats, playing an extended role as senior reserve Chris Colvin was suspended for violating team rules.
As Colvin is expected to be suspended for the next two games as well, Gordon’s contribution becomes even more significant for the short-handed Sun Devils as they look to break out of their two-game slump.
“He's hitting his shots and taking it to the basket,” said Carson of Gordon. “He's taking off some (responsibility) for me at the point guard position, so I just think it's time for him to get his rhythm going and he's fixing that pretty well.”
After starting the season mired in a shooting slump, Gordon has steadily found his groove over the team’s last 12 games, connecting on 42% of his three point attempts (27-64) while averaging 10.1 points and 3 rebounds per game for the season.
“He's always big in my eyes; he's our shooting guard,” he added. “When he's on, that's when we're on.”
One Sun Devil who didn’t fare well against Arizona last weekend was senior forward Carrick Felix, who saw his streak of 16 consecutive games scoring in double figures come to end as he finished with a season-low five points on just 1-8 shooting.
“All great players have bad days and Saturday just wasn't my day,” said Felix. “I just have to keep playing and capitalize (on) it this week. Thursday's game is going to be a new game.”
Felix, who’s averaging 14.6 points and 7.9 rebounds per game, struggled against the athletic Arizona frontcourt defense, often settling for outside shots instead of attacking the rim as he has done with regularity this season. He finished 1-7 from behind the three point line while also committing a team-high seven turnovers.
“Oh yeah, I definitely played defense on myself in the last game,” he admitted. “I definitely settled for the three a little bit more but I'm going to go back to my old self and starting from the inside and working my way out.
“I know I'm a good player and I'm going to have my days but I have my teammates like Jahii, Jordan, Chris and Evan to back me up and make sure my confidence stays there,” added Felix. “Coach is always in my ear, which is good. I'm just at a better spot.”
Tinsel town Comes to Tempe
The Sun Devils will look to end their losing skid on Thursday when USC (8-11, 3-3) visits Wells Fargo Arena. Under Sendek, Arizona State is 5-1 against the Trojans in Tempe and will be looking to win their third straight against USC after sweeping the Trojans last year.
“We definitely need to get some momentum back, get a little winning streak going,” said Felix. “I think after this past Saturday, coming off that loss, we have a lot to learn from. But win or lose, we would still be saying the same things; we've just got to go into these (games) focused and ready to go.”
The Trojans, who narrowly defeated Oregon State after being upended late by conference leader Oregon last week, are led by senior forward Earl Wise, who’s averaging 12.5 points and 4.9 rebounds per game.
DeWayne Dedmon adds an additional punch down low for USC, chipping in 6.9 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2 blocks per game.
“They're kind of like Arizona in that they can really penetrate,” said Felix. “One thing they do well is penetrate and kick out for the three, so that's something that we'll definitely have to guard.”
The challenge becomes significantly more difficult for the Sun Devils on Saturday when they square off against UCLA (15-4, 5-1) and their talented class of freshmen that have helped rejuvenate a Bruin offense that enters the week averaging 77.6 points per game, which ranks 23rd nationally.
“They're a really good team,” said Felix. “They share the ball and have great chemistry and really get out and run. They can play at the opposite end as well and get defensive rebounds.”
UCLA is led by freshman sensation Shabazz Muhammad, who’s averaging 17.9 points and 5.1 rebounds per game.
Sharing the load with him is another talented freshman in Jordan Adams, who is off to a fast start averaging 15.2 and 3.8 rebounds per game for the Bruins.
“I'm very familiar with them,” said Carson. “I’ve played with those guys on multiple teams - All-American teams, USA Teams - so it's exciting to get to play against those guys who are well-known names.
“I think it can do something for our confidence if we can go out there and stop those guys.”
Stopping UCLA may be no easy task, but one that Carson admittedly looks forward to. The Bruins, who suffered their first conference loss last weekend by falling to Oregon 76-67, feature a dynamic backcourt combination of senior Larry Drew II and freshman Kyle Anderson, who pace a UCLA offense that currently ranks eighth nationally in assists per game (17.4).
“The faster they go, the faster I go and I think I'm a fast guy so they're definitely going to have to be ready for me to push the basketball as well,” said Carson. “I think both teams are going to have to play great transition defense and I think it's going to be a high-paced game and a high scoring game.”
Patrolling the paint for the Bruins are twins David and Travis Wear, who transferred from North Carolina and are averaging a combined 19.6 and 10.3 rebounds.
“One thing that we've got to do is make sure we contain the Wear twins,” said Felix. “That's going to be huge because those two alone, they rebound, they shoot, they can kind of just do it all for them.
“If you see every game and look at the stats, they always have ten rebounds and maybe a couple of assists. They're stat sheet stuffers.”
Despite suffering back-to-back losses for the first time this season which dropped the Sun Devils from atop the Pac-12 standings, both Felix and Carson understand the importance of defending their home court this week and what a strong showing can do to bolster the team’s confidence while pushing them right back into the thick of the conference race.
"I think we look at it as our most important week (of the season) coming into it right now," said Carson. "USC and UCLA are both good teams so we've got to go out and get a mandatory two wins. I look at it as must-win games for us.
"If we come out 2-0 against these guys, I think our confidence gets back going and we get rolling as a team."