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Hurley: ASU better suited for NCAA tournament success than last season

TEMPE, Ariz. — Between stunning non-conference wins, disappointing conference losses and a nervy Selection Sunday, ASU has followed a similar path the last two basketball seasons.

Nothing has come easy for the Sun Devils, who on Wednesday will look to avoid back-to-back First Four losses in the NCAA Tournament when they face St. John’s in Dayton.

After ASU fell to Syracuse last year in a play-in game, head coach Bobby Hurley believes this year’s team is better suited to make it past the opening round. Doing so would give the program its first NCAA Tournament win since 2009.

“I just think we have a lot of winners in the locker room,” Hurley said on Monday. “We’re more athletic and have more ability to score in the paint than we could last year.

“The guards were terrific and we just couldn’t get the balance we now have on both ends of the floor.”

ASU’s play in the last month of the season — Pac-12 Tournament included — gives weight to Hurley’s words.

The Sun Devils’ only two losses in their last eight games were to Oregon, who finished the pre-NCAA Tournament season by winning eight games in a row and the Pac-12 Tournament.

The athleticism and balance Hurley talked about were key contributors to their late-season play.

Stanford, Cal and Oregon State all shot less than 40 percent against ASU thanks mostly to a pair of all-conference defensive selections in Luguentz Dort and Zylan Cheatham.

ASU scored 98 points in a road win over Utah in mid-February and 83 in its Pac-12 quarterfinal win over UCLA.

Although the Sun Devils typically start three guards, they’ve been able to get good offensive production from frontcourt players like Cheatham (11.8 points per game), Romello White (8.7 ppg) and Kimani Lawrence (8.7 ppg).

Last season, ASU got 57 percent of its point production from its starting three guards: Tra Holder, Shannon Evans and Kodi Justice. This season? Just 51 percent.

“We’ve strung together really good wins, especially late in the year,” Hurley said, “beating Oregon State and Arizona on the road and then beating UCLA in the Pac-12 Tournament.”

Even the Pac-12 semifinal loss to Oregon was a solid display of what can make ASU successful in the NCAA Tournament.

Oregon started four players 6-foot-9 or taller and arguably the Sun Devils’ best player, Remy Martin, played with a groin injury yet ASU was only out-rebounded by one and took the game to overtime.

Some are projecting Oregon as a team that could make an extended tournament run.

“When you’ve been in big games and put it all on the line, you hope that you could draw on that experience on the biggest stage,” Hurley said. “We’ve been on that stage so I’m pretty confident it won’t be for nerves or inexperience if we don’t play well.”

St. John’s won’t provide the same challenges as a team like Oregon, either.

All five of the Red Storm’s starters are 6-foot-7 or shorter, led by junior guard Shamorie Ponds (19.5 ppg).

If ASU’s bigs play well and the Sun Devils limit St. John’s 3-point shooting, a Friday date with Buffalo in Tulsa seems likely.

Plus, Martin should be close to 100 percent healthy by Wednesday, according to Hurley.

“I said after the Oregon game that you have to rip our heart out to beat us,” Hurley said. “That’s how we’re going after it.

“Now we have a chance to get Remy healthy so that we have a chance to get one of our best players functioning at a level physically that we need him to.”

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