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Arizona State Sun Devils’ case for the NCAA Tournament

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

In a season filled with upset and injury, opportunity has been beating down the door of unlikely contenders. For a time, Arizona State was among those ranks.

A scorching start to the season had the Sun Devils at the pinnacle of college basketball with a 12-0 record and the No. 3 ranking in the Associated Press poll.

Since then, head coach Bobby Hurley’s team has stumbled. ASU is unranked with a 8-11 record in conference games. The ninth-place team in the Pac-12, a once-trendy Final Four pick, has trended toward the brink of the NCAA Tournament bubble.

While the field remains open and Selection Sunday set for March 11, it leaves Arizona State fans with the question, what is the Sun Devils’ NCAA Tournament case?

Strength of schedule

In evaluating the resume of Arizona State, its schedule will play a big role come Selection Sunday.

Boasting high-caliber wins over Xavier on a neutral floor and a road win at Kansas are at the epicenter of the Sun Devils’ claim to fame. They additionally own a road win at Utah as well as home victories over USC, UCLA and San Diego State.

ASU concluded its season with an RPI of 64 after finishing below .500 in an underwhelming Pac-12. Using the new quadrant system, the team owns two bad losses in a home contest with Stanford and road loss at Oregon State.

In three years under Hurley, ASU has ramped up its scheduling in nonconference games, playing against the likes of Kansas, Purdue and Kentucky to name a few.

It’s quite possible that the caliber of opponents on the Sun Devils’ schedule could be the difference between the NCAA Tournament and the NIT.

Nonconference vs. Pac-12

It is no secret that Arizona State has looked like an entirely different team over the past 18 games than it did in its first 12. A high-octane offense fizzled out while a porous defense could no longer be masked.On Dec. 21, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi had ASU as the No. 4 overall seed in his Bracketology.

The Sun Devils are no worse than the second-best team in a disappointing Pac-12, meaning a gaudy record and favorable NCAA seed are pretty much inevitable. Projection: The Sun Devils will be dancing with a top four NCAA seed and opening tournament play in San Diego.

Now, it appears that the Sun Devils will become the lowest-seeded team in the past decade to have earned a top-5 ranking in the first post-New Year’s day poll. The 2009-10 Texas Longhorns currently hold that record, garnering a No. 8 seed while ASU is projected as a No. 11 seed.

There has been a staggering difference for the Sun Devils on both ends of the floor since the calendar turned to 2018. These are just some of the discrepancies.

Drawing Comparisons

The Sun Devils are not the first ranked team to face mid-season adversity and they certainly won’t be the last. Here is an in-depth look at other teams who have experienced hot starts and slow finishes.

Clemson 2006-07

Start: 17-0, No. 1 in RPI. 

Finish: 7-9 in ACC play, 21-9 overall. Lost NIT title game.

In short, this would be a worst-case scenario for ASU.

Clemson, like the Sun Devils, started the season unranked. The Tigers entered the poll at No. 17 after a 17-0 start.

The success story was short-lived as Clemson went 4-7 down the stretch and lost in the opening round of the ACC Tournament. Despite a 21-10 record, the Tigers were sent to the NIT.

Texas 2009-10

Start: 17-0, ranked No. 1 in Jan. 18 AP poll.

Finish: 9-7 in Big-12, 23-8 overall. Lost in NCAA Tournament round of 64 as a No. 8 seed

Facing lofty expectations as the preseason No. 3 team, Texas fell well short. Through mid-January, the Longhorns never left the top three, spending two weeks as the No. 1 team in the country before a 6-8 finish dropped them all the way to a No. 8 seed and were eliminated in the opening round of the tournament.

Ohio State 2013-14

Start: 15-0, ranked No. 3 in the AP poll on Jan. 6.

Finish: 10-8 in Big-10, 8-8 down the stretch. Lost in NCAA Tournament round of 64 as a No. 6 seed.

Similar to Arizona State, this Ohio State team played through its senior guards. The difference between the two teams is that Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith were not high-octane scorers but rather lock down defenders.

The Buckeyes had the sixth-best defensive rating in the country and allowed more than 70 points six times. By comparison, they only managed to score more than 70 points once in the final month of the season before being upset in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.

What makes the season successful?

Hurley’s third season with the Sun Devils has come with major strides being taken within the program. Arizona State posted its best single-season win total since 2014, spent 11 weeks in the AP poll and jumped into the national spotlight. However, at what point can this season be considered successful?

Sure, wins over Xavier and Kansas are stepping stones for a budding program. But stacking two games up against an entire season is a different story.

ASU was projected to finish sixth in the Pac-12 preseason media poll. The nonconference surge raised the bar week-to-week and by the time the Sun Devils left Allen Fieldhouse, astronomical expectations had been established.

Despite a potent offense and two marquee wins, the reality is that the heightened expectations were unsustainable.

While some might feel let down based on inconsistency displayed in Pac-12 play, ASU was considered to be one year away from competing for a spot in the NCAA Tournament. The Sun Devils will exceed their original expectations if they secure a tournament bid.

However, a 1-4 finish to the regular season coupled with a first-round exit in the Pac-12 Tournament leaves the Sun Devils’ postseason hopes in question.

Confidence has been replaced by uncertainty as Selection Sunday looms.

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