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Dan Bickley

With First Four win over St. John’s, ASU conquered a defining moment

Arizona State's Luguentz Dort (0) drives against St. John's Marvin Clark II, center, during the first half of a First Four game of the NCAA men's college basketball tournament Wednesday, March 20, 2019, in Dayton, Ohio. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

The NCAA Tournament has a great reputation. It never fails to produce. It never lets you down.

For once, neither did Arizona State’s basketball program.

Their 74-65 victory over St. John’s on Wednesday wasn’t always pretty.

They seized the moment with great bravado. They felt the moment and became skittish cats coughing up hairballs. But they survived. They advanced. They will give the Valley a great moment on Friday, when Bobby Hurley takes on Buffalo, the program he built, the one that catapulted him to ASU.

Let’s be honest.

If ASU had lost to St. John’s, the season would’ve been a failure. It would’ve been nearly identical to the previous year, featuring a win over Kansas, a subpar conference showing and a First Four exit in Dayton, Ohio. And it would’ve happened to a much better roster.

Hurley might’ve had the talking points he needed when the Sun Devils scored their invitation, able to sell the arc of ASU’s program. The Sun Devils are the only Pac-12 team in the NCAA Tournament for a second consecutive season. A March Madness logo was emblazoned at midcourt when ASU won Wednesday’s opening tipoff. They have real momentum on the recruiting trail.

But casual fans in the Valley wouldn’t be so forgiving.

We all know the NCAA Tournament really begins on Thursday mornings, with Bloody Marys, crowded bars and a field of 64 teams. The First Four changes the rules and the number of participants. But it does not change the way we feel.

If you’re eliminated before this party begins, then what have you really accomplished?

Nothing.

But in this defining moment, this dance with inevitable disappointment, ASU finally delivered. The Sun Devils made big shots and most of their free throws. Their head coach was a raving lunatic, assessed a costly technical for too many pained looks at officials, but he managed to reel it in. They closed out the game and moved down the road, joining the real NCAA Tournament.

Now, they look as dangerous as they do vulnerable. They have time to clean up their end-game mechanics, but they should be liberated from external pressure. They’ll need better ball-handling and press-breaking to advance, and maybe they were limited by a recent injury to point guard Remy Martin.

They are also fortified by this late surge from Luguentz Dort, the Pac-12’s freshman of the year, a tank of a player who raises the ceiling. Sometimes, he even looks like a mini-Zion.

Dort made big shots against St. John’s. He survived a hard fall. He looks like the kind of athlete you see in the Final Four. Not the First Four.

That hill has been conquered. And for the first time in a while, it’s safe for ASU basketball fans to dream big.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@bonneville.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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Dan Bickley bio
Dan Bickley is the most influential sports media member in Arizona sports history, having spent over 20 years as the award-winning lead sports columnist for The Arizona Republic and AZCentral.com and almost two decades as a Valley sports radio talk show host. In spring 2018, Bickley made the decision to leave the newspaper to join the Arizona Sports team as host of the entertaining and informative midday show Bickley and Marotta, as well as bring his opinionated and provocative column exclusively to ArizonaSports.com.
Bickley’s journalism career began in his hometown of Chicago, where he was part of a star-studded staff at the Chicago Sun-Times. He chronicled Michael Jordan’s six NBA championships; covered the Olympics in eight different countries and attended 14 Super Bowls; spent three weeks in an Indianapolis courthouse writing about Mike Tyson’s rape trial; and once left his laptop in an Edmonton bar after the Blackhawks reached the Stanley Cup Finals.
He has won multiple awards, written two books, formed a rock band, fathered three children, and once turned down an offer to work at the New York Times.  His passions include sports, music, the alphabet, good beer and great radio. After joining Arizona Sports 98.7 FM, he couldn’t be happier