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Sun Devils’ NCAA Tournament a big building block for future

Arizona State's Kodi Justice passes under Colorado's Tyler Bey during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the first round of the Pac-12 men's tournament Wednesday, March 7, 2018, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

TEMPE, Ariz. — Bobby Hurley was right all along. Arizona State’s nonconference resume was too good to ignore.

The Sun Devil men’s basketball team is going to the NCAA Tournament where it will face Syracuse in a First Four game Wednesday in Dayton, Ohio.

“We’re the hunter now,” senior Kodi Justice said. “We’re going out to hunt people. We’re going out to fight.”

The Sun Devils’ Tournament bid is important for reasons well beyond the immediate reward. ASU needed this prize to jumpstart its program. ASU needed this to set an expectation. ASU needed this to break a cycle.

You can wax poetic about bright futures. You can imagine better recruits on the way as a byproduct of Hurley’s living-room skills and name recognition. You can even imagine dark days ahead for the Sun Devils’ rival down south, which has ridden an emotional pogo stick all season long.

But that’s just speculation, hyperbolic fandom bereft of critical analysis or factual basis. There are no guarantees that ASU will land enough talent to unseat the state’s preeminent program, and if Arizona makes a deep tournament run, even the rumored loss of coach Sean Miller may not be a program killer.

In spite of the talent on the way or already in the program, ASU could take a step back next season when it loses critical seniors Tra Holder, Shannon Evans and Kodi Justice.

What Sunday’s announcement accomplished was to set the standard for Hurley’s program. ASU has not been to back-to-back NCAA tournaments since coach Ned Wulk accomplished the feat in 1980 and 1981.

Hurley can change that. He has a chance to establish ASU as a team with tournament expectations, a team that gets the benefit of the doubt when all other things are equal in that selection committee room.

The revamped selection criteria helped ASU on Selection Sunday. An 8-11 slide in Pac-12 play was troubling, especially because nine of the Sun Devils’ 11 losses were to teams that will not be in the tournament, but the new rules stipulated that late-season play mattered no more than early-season play.

In the nonconference portion of the schedule, ASU went 12-0, knocking off Big 12 champ Kansas, Big East regular season champ Xavier and Mountain West champ San Diego State, along with a quality win over Kansas State. The Jayhawks and Musketeers are No. 1 seeds in the Tournament.

“I just think we’ve done enough this year,” Hurley said last week. “Obviously, there is going to be debate with teams in a committee room but I feel very comfortable with what we’ve accomplished in our whole body of work and the games we’ve won and beating two conferences champions of major conferences.”

He was right, and now he has a chance to build something meaningful off this promising start — something that hasn’t existed in Tempe in 37 years.

“It’s been an excruciating three days leading into this,” Hurley said Sunday. “We knew it was going to be a very close decision but I’m thankful that we played the schedule we played and that we had the success that we did.”

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