ARIZONA STATE BASKETBALL
Season review: The highs and lows of ASU’s uneven 2020-21 campaign
A season that was billed as being straight out of a dream ended as a nightmare for the Arizona State Sun Devils men’s basketball team.
The Sun Devils, who started the season ranked No. 18 in the AP preseason poll, was the highest ranked Pac-12 team in the rankings.
A combination of COVID-19 cancellations, injuries and bad luck thwarted the team’s momentum, however.
The Sun Devils would go on to lead the Pac-12 in games that were either postponed or canceled at nine, one ahead of Oregon.
ASU started the season winning four of six, with its only loss coming to Villanova and San Diego State, who were ranked in the AP poll at the time.
The wheels started to fall off with a 13-point loss to UTEP on Dec. 16 that dropped the Sun Devils to 5-3 on the year.
That proved to be the team’s final game before a four-game hiatus that was caused by COVID-19 issues within the Sun Devils and their opponents’ programs.
The team’s two-week break did nothing to solidify ASU’s standing, as they would go on to lose five straight games to open conference play, including defeats in consecutive games to the Arizona Wildcats.
The Sun Devils would be without the likes of Remy Martin for two games, one against USC and another against the UCLA Bruins, both of which ASU lost.
ASU would go on to sweep the Bay Area teams in late January and split its games against Oregon and Oregon State to open February, before closing out the month by going 2-2, with losses to USC and UCLA and wins over Washington and Washington State.
A final cancellation against Washington State set the stage for a four-game sprint over the course of seven days for the Sun Devils. ASU would go on to lose three of those contests, with their lone win coming against the Cougars in Tempe on March 10.
ASU’s season-long slog came to an end Thursday via a 91-73 loss to the Oregon Ducks in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Tournament.
Here’s a look at the many highs and lows of the season that was for the Sun Devils:
Martin was the brightest spot for much of the year for the Sun Devils, leading the team in scoring with 19.3 points per game, while hitting 34% of his three-pointers, 43% of his field goals and 77% of his free throws in 22 games played.
The senior from Chatsworth, Calif. registered double digits in all but six of the team’s contests, finishing the year with four 30-point games.
Despite Martin’s production slowing down at year’s end, finishing the season with three single-digit performances in four games, Hurley made sure to let everyone know how much the guard meant to him and the program as a whole in his postgame remarks on Thursday.
“Remy Martin, feels like yesterday he was stealing the ball vs. Kansas … and laying it in. I won’t have an opportunity to coach him again, so that was tough,” Hurley said.
The play of freshman guard Josh Christopher
Christopher arrived on campus as the highest ranked recruit to choose ASU since James Harden. The freshman did his fair share on the court when he was healthy, ranking second on the team in scoring (14.3), while hitting 43% of his field goals to go with 80% of his free throws.
A back injury kept Christopher out of action for 10 of the Sun Devils’ games this year, but he shined when he took the court.
The growth of role players like Jalen Graham and Kimani Lawrence
No member of the Sun Devils had as big of a jump in offensive production as sophomore big man Jalen Graham, who nearly tripled his points per game from a season ago to 8.2 points per game. On top of that, Graham improved his rebounding, from 2.8 per game to 5.2, giving Hurley an interior presence to build around in 2021.
There’s also a chance that seniors like forward Kimani Lawrence return to Tempe thanks to the NCAA granting an extra year of eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
That’s good news for Hurley and his staff, as Lawrence managed to improve his points per game average from 4.9 to 8.2, while averaging 5.0 rebounds per game.
The lack of success after bringing in a top-10 recruiting class in 2020
Much was made of the Sun Devils’ incoming freshman class in 2020, which included five-star guard Christopher and four-star forward Marcus Bagley. Both put up good stats when they were on the court in 2020-21, with Christopher ranking second on the team behind Martin in scoring (14.3), while Bagley led the team in rebounding (6.2).
The issue was that both struggled to stay healthy, with Christopher missing 10 games and Bagley missing 13.
Hurley didn’t give much clarity as to the likelihood of either returning to Tempe for their sophomore season, saying that they’ll discuss such matters in the future.
“It’s always been, and I’ve been clear on the message with Josh that he’s always intended on playing the season and then turning pro and I have not heard anything otherwise in regards to Josh. Marcus is going to go through his processes as well, but we have not had a chance to sit down and talk with either guy about what their intentions are at this particular moment,” Hurley said.
The COVID-19 blues that seemed to derail the team’s season from the get-go
The Sun Devils, like many in college basketball, had their fair share of COVID-19 related cancellations and postponements in 2021.
The team had a total of nine games that were either called off entirely or rescheduled, including their four-game stretch between Dec. 17 and New Year’s Eve.
ASU also had postponements on Jan. 14, Feb. 2, Feb. 4, Feb. 7 and March 1 — which surely complicated the team’s quest for any sort of normality.
The net result, no matter how you break down the root causes, was an 11-14 record that ended with an 18-point loss to the Ducks in Las Vegas on Thursday.
Hurley referenced as much postgame on Thursday, trying his best to move on from a trying season.
“It was a tough scene in the locker room as it generally is when guys invest and out their heart and soul into this. Certainly the core of the group that was on the floor a lot today has done that all year against a lot of adverse conditions,” Hurley said.
“Very emotional in the locker room, saying goodbye to a couple seniors that have meant so much to me.”