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Bobby Hurley, Sun Devils moving on from Sam Cunliffe’s departure

Portland State's Calaen Robinson, right, dives unsuccessfully for a steal on Arizona State's Sam Cunliffe (3) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Friday, Nov. 11, 2016, in Tempe, Ariz. (Patrick Breen/The Arizona Republic via AP)

TEMPE, Ariz. — The highest profile recruit in Bobby Hurley’s short tenure as Arizona State’s men’s basketball coach — and the highest rated prospect for the program since James Harden — lasted six weeks into his first season. Four-star prospect Sam Cunliffe is going back home to Seattle for reasons not yet fully clear.

It’s not the news that one of the college game’s more accomplished players expected to hear in his second season as a major conference coach. So where do Hurley and the Sun Devils go from here?

“It just makes us work harder to try and identify the right people that want to be here, that appreciate the opportunity of being here, that don’t feel it’s beneath them to be here and want to be a part of winning championships,” Hurley said Thursday in an assessment that may have offered deeper insight into Cunliffe’s departure.

“As a product of winning championships and contending and being in a winning program, then the individual glory comes as a result of that. We’ll hope that we could do a good job of finding those guys that want to do it here, but there’s a lot of things to be excited about.”

For starter’s, Hurley pointed to the Sun Devils’ last game, a come-from-behind win at San Diego State (Cunliffe’s last game) in which freshman Jethro Tshisumpa — one of two other ESPN top 100 players in ASU’s 2016 recruiting class — had five blocked shots.

“So excited from what I saw from Jethro in San Diego,” Hurley said. “The difference and the impact he can make on a game when he’s playing well and staying out of foul trouble and continuing to get better — you got a glimpse of his potential down the road.

“He changes our team if he could play that way.”

Hurley also has academically ineligible forward Romello White — the other ESPN top-100 player — and forward Vitaliy Shibel (out for the season with an ACL tear) to look forward to next season. As for this season, it’s a next-man-up mentality.

“The guys that are playing and have been playing big minutes have to do even more to compensate for the nine points and the four rebounds and the good defense and the things that Sam brought to the table,” Hurley said.

Hurley never expected to forge a hiccup-free path to contention for the Sun Devils. He’s a hard-driving coach with high expectations and no appetite for coddling. He knows the landscape has changed from his days at Duke. He knows players’ expectations are often out of sync with reality.

“It’s happening everywhere; just about every program deals with it,” he said. “I think there were around 700 transfers last year. A majority of them come from maybe guys that have been in the program one or two years and aren’t getting the playing time and that kind of thing so it just doesn’t work out. It is part of the culture. Players have options and they have a right to do what’s in their best interest.”

That said, Hurley isn’t about to compromise, and the respect he garners from his days at Duke and in the NBA will still pay dividends for the Devils down the recruiting road. One player does not change that.

Hurley admitted Thursday that Cunliffe’s decision had been brewing for some time. It was more the timing of it that was surprising — right after a good win.

“It’s something that we were working through for a short period of time,” Hurley said. “It was not completely unexpected. There were some conversations had leading into the decision. The timing, the day that it happened, it was not expected based on the way we won and the progress that we made in that game, but it doesn’t come as a complete surprise to our staff.”

After an adjustment period at the start of the season, Cunliffe had a stretch of five straight games with at least 10 points — including a 23-point effort against The Citadel on Nov. 23. Over the last two games, however, he had five and three points, respectively, while shooting a combined 3-of-16 from the field.

Ultimately, Hurley said he understood Cunliffe’s decision.

“It was a great four years for me when I played, the greatest four years of your life,” he said. “You want to be happy, you want to try and get the most out of it. It wasn’t my decision. I loved coaching him. I enjoyed having him in the program. I enjoyed getting to know his family. I think the potential is definitely there. Everything I’ve said about Sam, I think still could be achieved for him individually wherever he ends up.”

As for the Sun Devils, they have already moved on.

“Things like that happen on every team,” guard Shannon Evans said. “We wish Sam the best. He did great things for us here. He’ll keep doing great things in the future but in basketball, you’ve got to turn the page quickly and focus on the next game.”

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