DAN BICKLEY

Bobby Hurley’s ASU could seize control of Pac-12 next season

Apr 14, 2020, 4:50 PM | Updated: 6:09 pm
(AP Photo/The Arizona Republic, Tom Tingle)...
(AP Photo/The Arizona Republic, Tom Tingle)
(AP Photo/The Arizona Republic, Tom Tingle)

The right college basketball team can take you places. To regionals and Final Fours. Up ladders to cut down nets. To emotional heights where the air is thin and breathing takes effort. They can make you fall in love.

Arizona State has a chance to be that kind of team. The recruiting windfall of Josh Christopher and Marcus Bagley, along with potential returns of Remy Martin and Romello White, would make ASU prodigious Pac-12 favorites. They would give Bobby Hurley powerful statements and the deepest rotation he’s ever had in Tempe.

Throw in Hurley’s hands-off style – where liberated players aren’t afraid to make mistakes because they aren’t scorned for taking bad shots – and you’re looking at the potential for must-see basketball in Tempe.

It’s possible because the right college basketball team does more than generate interest and revenue. They make magic. Hurley has been part of teams like that during his playing career, and for proof, you can probably name most of his teammates.

We all love college athletics for the same reason: the pomp and pageantry, the mascots and student bodies, the traditions and rivalries. But in college football, we learn to worship the program, not necessarily a collection of individuals. The head coach is the star while the individual brands are all repressed, all blurring together.

A great college basketball team is a different animal. It becomes a constellation of stars. A tapestry of personalities and each one must fit. They become local celebrities without the sense of entitlement or privilege that comes with professional basketball.

They also become family. Nurturing fans become part of their development. You know something about everyone in uniform. These teams don’t come around often, like the Arizona outfit that took down three No. 1 seeds on the way to a championship. Or the time Devin Booker was the sixth man at Kentucky.

Nevertheless, Hurley is succeeding where his predecessors have failed. Bill Frieder’s great recruiting class ended with scandal. Rob Evans never parlayed Ike Diogu into real momentum. Same with Herb Sendek and James Harden.

But Hurley keeps turning one good recruiting class into something bigger. Each of his teams have looked better than the last. And that’s only half the story.

The poaching of Christopher, a five-star guard and the 10th-rated recruit in the nation, was surely paved by the presence of his brother on ASU’s roster. Hurley had an inside track to the family and made the most of it, even though many experts had Christopher signing with Michigan.

It also means Hurley just stole food off the plate of a blueblood program, just like beating No. 1 Kansas on the road. It’s a thunderous victory that again symbolizes ASU’s arrival to the world of big-time college basketball.

Skeptics will scoff at that assertion. But had the 2019-20 season not been canceled, Hurley would be the only Pac-12 coach with three consecutive NCAA Tournament berths. By contrast, Arizona and Sean Miller are still on slippery footing, stigmatized and subject to NCAA sanctions.

There is great opportunity. Just as ASU’s football program is planting a flag in Southern California while USC fiddles and burns, ASU basketball can pounce on a fallen rival, narrowing the gap between programs.

Hurley’s next team might even be good enough to captivate hearts, headlines and the attention of a saturated professional sports market. Because that’s what great college basketball teams do. They are known for their reach.

They take you far beyond Dayton, Ohio. To places you only dreamed possible.

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