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ASU hosts UCLA, USC with a month to prove it belongs in tournament

Head coach Bobby Hurley of the Arizona State Sun Devils reacts to a call during the second half against the Oregon Ducks at Matthew Knight Arena on January 11, 2020 in Eugene, Oregon. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

They say there’s a calmness before the storm. A lull before the chaos.

The Arizona State Sun Devils have no such luxury of tranquility the month before the madness of March.

February is upon them. The final 10 games to prove they belong in the NCAA Tournament.

ASU plays home games against UCLA on Thursday with an unusually late tipoff of 9 p.m. and USC on Saturday at 8 p.m.

“My whole thing is right now for the month of February — it’s just whatever it takes to win,” said point guard Remy Martin. “I have to make sure that I do my job and make sure the team is ready to play.”

Even for the most optimistic fans, ASU (13-8, 4-4) is on the bubble at best. Its NET ranking is 58, with six Pac-12 teams ahead. Its RPI is 47, behind four conference foes.

Its first home series of February comes against UCLA, which is half a game above ASU in the conference standings, and USC, tied for second in the Pac-12.

It’s been an up-and-down season for the Sun Devils. They have the 8-1 start and comeback win over Arizona, but they also have bad losses to Saint Mary’s and the Wildcats. They were unable to handle Oregon, Colorado or Washington State.

Martin said it’s on him to make sure the team is better.

“I think that I gotta do a better job. I think I gotta make sure the team is right. I feel like I gotta make sure I do whatever I can to win,” Martin said.

“I think that once we lose, it’s on me. It’s either you win or you lose and I’m not a loser, so I just gotta do whatever I can to win.”

The losses are on him too? Martin has transformed from the energy guy as a freshman to the team’s leader as a junior. He averages the second-most points in the Pac-12 and is within 0.3 points of the leader. Why does he think that?

“Cause it’s true,” Martin said.

“I have so much confidence in myself that I think that I always have a chance to win and when I don’t succeed in that, I get frustrated … I feel like I am somebody who can change the game and win, so I just feel like I’m confident in my abilities to win any type of game, win any type of situation.”

He’s not the only one in the locker room with confidence. Guard Alonzo Verge Jr. said the peaks and valleys can help keep the team calm at the next point of pressure.

“Remembering everything that we’ve been through, that helps a lot just knowing what we did to get here,” Verge said.

After all, even with the disappointments the team has had between its highs this season, ASU is in the middle of a pack just one game behind fourth-place Stanford.

“We can’t fall into a trap thinking that we’re home now and thinking everything’s great and wonderful,” head coach Bobby Hurley said. “We gotta compete, we gotta work … and just have a tough mindset coming into Thursday’s game.”

Khalid Thomas’ presence

Khalid Thomas, who transferred from College of Southern Idaho, finally got a chance in Pac-12 games over the weekend.

After playing seven scoreless minutes against Washington State, Thomas scored 10 points in 19 minutes in the win against Washington.

“He hasn’t had the easiest season,” Hurley said. “He’s been on the bench some, he’s played and for him to step into a game like that that we needed and play that well, it was a good sign for us.”

Listed at 6-foot-9, Thomas could be important these next two games.

UCLA far and away leads the conference with 12.5 offensive rebounds per game, and USC is second with 11.1. They’re both top-four teams in total rebounds.

If Thomas can be productive, his size would be a boon for ASU. Ideally, two of Romello White, Jalen Graham and Thomas could play together and keep size on the floor.

“I feel like (Hurley’s) definitely going to try to go bigger,” White said. “UCLA, they go to the glass hard … I think that’s definitely going to be something that he’s going to try out early.”

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