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How ASU basketball has built better schedules, raised its national profile

Since Bobby Hurley became coach in 2015, ASU basketball has made tougher scheduling a point of emphasis. (Photo by Jack Harris/Cronkite News)

TEMPE, Ariz. — In his sixth floor office in the Carson Student-Athlete Center in Tempe, Arizona State Senior Associate Athletic Director Dave Cohen has a schedule hanging by his door.

It’s an oversized printout of the Sun Devils’ 2017-18 men’s basketball schedule. A glance down the list of opponents serves as a visual reminder of how much tougher the Sun Devils are scheduling these days.

Kansas State. Xavier. St. John’s. Kansas. Vanderbilt.

ASU’s upcoming non-conference schedule, printed on a couple sheets of paper lying in front of Cohen, shows the names of more big-time schools.

Mississippi State. Nevada. Georgia. Vanderbilt. Kansas.

Cohen is one of the administrators that oversees ASU’s burgeoning basketball program. Though he describes himself as “one little spoke” in the construction of the Sun Devils’ non-conference schedule, Cohen does a lot of the leg work to book opponents.

And during coach Bobby Hurley’s tenure in recent years, more of those opponents have been of a higher difficulty and prestige. It’s all by design.

“We are very fortunate to have a head coach in Bobby who wants to play a very challenging schedule,” Cohen said in an interview with Cronkite News.

“What we are trying to do is schedule these high-level competitive games. Bobby, he’ll be the first one to say, that when he was playing, he liked playing in big games. Now, he likes to coach in big games.”

Cohen’s poster board still has the team’s game-by-game record handwritten in white marker alongside each contest. It reflects ASU’s successful non-conference campaign of a season ago, when the team went undefeated and knocked off a pair of eventual NCAA Tournament one-seeds, accomplishments Cohen called “primary reasons” the Sun Devils reached the tournament for the first time under Hurley.

It was validation of the program’s new philosophy to schedule harder, an ethos it is following again in 2018-19.

“Our scheduling is just part of our DNA now,” Cohen said. “I don’t want to say that we’ll play anybody, anywhere. But these bigger games, bigger national games, they are good for TV, they are good for the school and it’s good for the players and their development.”

Changing the perception

ASU has not always scheduled with such ambition.

Former head coach Herb Sendek got tagged with the “soft scheduler” label during his nine-year career after several of his teams narrowly missed making the NCAA Tournament, in part because of a weak resume of opponents.

It’s been exactly the opposite under Hurley.

In Hurley’s first three years on campus, ASU faced 13 power conference opponents (those from the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Big East and SEC) outside of its league schedule. In the Pac-12, only UCLA has faced more (15) in that span.

ASU also played five true road games against non-conference foes in the last three years, tied for third-most among its Pac-12 rivals. This coming season, it will play three more, only the third time the program has done so since 2000.

Cohen admits the Sun Devils probably “overscheduled” at times in Hurley’s first couple seasons, putting meager rosters through unforgiving grinds. In Hurley’s first two seasons, the team went just 17-9 in non-conference games.

“We knew who we were,” Cohen said. “We knew we had a dynamic young coach and a roster that was evolving.”

After their hot start last year, the Sun Devils stumbled in Pac-12 play, losing 11 of its last 19 games leading up to Selection Sunday. They needed the challenging non-conference accomplishments to boost their resume and earn a spot in the tournament, proof that scheduling is at a higher premium, maybe now more than ever, when it comes to making the Big Dance.

Pac-12 Deputy Commissioner and Chief Operating Officer Jamie Zaninovich was a tournament selection committee member from 2011-2014 and now offers scheduling guidance to the conference’s teams. He called Arizona State one of the league’s most strategic programs at building at a schedule.

“Committees are pretty consistent that, whether non-conference or conference, they want to see you test yourself and play the highest level of opponent you can and as many of those games you can,” Zaninovich said.

That’s what Hurley has done since taking over in Tempe, one of the key ways he’s started to shape the Sun Devils into his desired mold as a program that schedules tough, recruits well and plays deep into March each year.

This season’s squad might be the most talented Hurley has had at ASU. Though the Sun Devils will be without their three leading scorers from last season (graduates Tra Holder, Shannon Evans II and Kodi Justice), the arrival of six talented new players will give Hurley the type of depth and length his past squads in Tempe have lacked.

They’re happy to be tested right away this season.

“(The players) love it,” Cohen said. “I’ve found, the last four years talking to recruits, the higher the rating, the more competitive that they are and the more they want to play in these big games.”

So too does their coach.

“It’s always one of the highlights for me,” Hurley said during his recent summer update press conference. “It’s a lot of exciting things for sure.”

Building the schedule

ASU has another tricky set of games coming this year.

Headlining the 2018-19 non-conference slate is the return visit from Kansas, the second part of a home-and-home between the programs — a series that almost didn’t happen.

Back in February 2017, during an ASU road trip to Seattle to face Washington, Cohen was communicating back and forth with KU Special Assistant to the Athletics Director, Larry Keating, trying to find a day to schedule the potential front-end of the series in Lawrence.

“The only date that worked for them was on a Sunday afternoon,” Cohen said. “One of our (scheduled) games was (going to be) played at that same time. But that game went away and it opened up an opportunity.”

Last year’s game was booked for Dec. 10, 2017. ASU went into Allen Fieldhouse and knocked off the second-ranked Jayhawks 95-85, vaulting the Sun Devils into the top five in the AP poll for the first time 1981.

“Even if we would have lost that game, our players in that environment would have remembered that game rather than playing a 275-RPI game at home and winning by 22,” Cohen said.

Kansas is a model for ASU to follow. The Jayhawks, like many of the nation’s blueblood programs, annually face top-notch competition. KU books several home-and-homes each year and has played 10 true road games in the last five seasons. It’s the type of program ASU would love to become.

KU is selective with which programs it puts on its schedule too. Although Cohen said having Hurley as a coach helped ASU book the series with Bill Self’s program, Keating identified the Sun Devils as a team on the rise even before their 20-win season last year.

“It fit with what we wanted and I know Arizona State was looking to upgrade their schedule, so everything worked out,” Keating told Cronkite News. “It turned out to be a good game for us in terms of strength of schedule.

“It turned out to be a great game for them,” he added with a chuckle.

ASU has home-and-homes dates with four other schools this season: Vanderbilt, Georgia, San Francisco (teams the Sun Devils will visit this season) and Princeton (which will come to Tempe this December).

Home-and-homes have been a point of emphasis for ASU’s scheduler-makers. Earlier this month, Vice President for University Athletics Ray Anderson told azcentral: “We’re not doing anything that’s a one-off. … It’s a home-and-home series. If you don’t want to do that, we’re not scheduling you.”

Cohen said that ASU tries to schedule geographically, too. Playing in California — and its fertile recruiting grounds — is a priority (the Sun Devils visit the Golden State twice even before Pac-12 play this season).

Scheduling games near the hometowns of its players is another consideration. For example, Cohen said the team plans to participate in an early season non-conference tournament on the East Coast in 2019, near sophomore forward Kimani Lawrence’s home state, Rhode Island. ASU will also face Georgia in Athens this year, just an hour’s drive from where sophomore forward Romello White grew up.

The Georgia game was a late addition to the schedule. ASU already had pre-planned trips to Vanderbilt and San Francisco in the books for this winter. But Cohen had a relationship with newly hired Bulldogs coach Tom Crean. Last year, the two dined during ASU’s trip to Los Angeles and Crean — then working as a television analyst — was in attendance when the Sun Devils knocked off St. John’s at the Staples Center.

This offseason, Cohen reached out to Crean to set up a game. Another notable opponent was added to ASU’s schedule.

“Here we are, able to schedule two SEC teams,” Cohen said. “Vanderbilt played here, we’re going to go there. Georgia is going to return it. At the end of the day, I like home-and-homes with bigger brands because when you look at a Georgia and an Arizona State, (you have) two Power Five, great brands, playing against each other.”

ASU also has scheduled a neutral-site meeting with Nevada — a projected Top 10 team — in Los Angeles and will play Mississippi State and either Utah State or Saint Mary’s in the Main Event Basketball Tournament in Las Vegas the week of Thanksgiving.

Of its 13 non-conference games this winter, almost half will be against teams that play in a power conference or made the NCAA Tournament last year.

“Bobby enjoys those atmospheres and that environment and coaching his tail off,” Cohen said. “I think it galvanizes a fan base, too, to look forward to a bigger game. We don’t look like we are overscheduling (with this year’s team).”

Minutes before his interview with Cronkite News, Cohen was busy trying to book ASU’s final open non-conference date, a Dec. 1 home game, scouring scheduling website WinAD.com for potential matchups. It will be one of ASU’s lighter opponents, Cohen said, but he stills wants to find a mid-major team with a chance to win its conference.

The goal is to have as few gimmies on the slate as possible.

ASU’s scheduling philosophies don’t come without risks: Lose too many times in non-conference — against good opponents or not — and it could be on the verge of postseason elimination even before Pac-12 play begins.

It’s a risk Cohen is willing to take.

The rewards of scheduling tough are so great, the Sun Devils are looking right past the pitfalls that could come with it. They aren’t wavering from the commitment they made four years ago to challenge themselves.

“I think it’s just kind of like who we are,” Cohen said. “There is really no downside.”

(Graphic by Jack Harris/Cronkite News)

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