ARIZONA STATE BASKETBALL

Bobby Hurley: Arizona State basketball jumps in ‘deep end’ of pool to tip 2023-24

Nov 6, 2023, 1:41 PM

Bobby Hurley and Jamiya Neal...

Head coach Bobby Hurley and Jamiya Neal #5 of the Arizona State Sun Devils in the first half at UCLA Pauley Pavilion on March 02, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Bobby Hurley does not fear the fight. Even if he knows his Arizona State Sun Devils don’t begin this upcoming season with built-in advantages.

He begins 2023-24 with just three returning pieces from a year ago, and one of them, forward Alonzo Gaffney, is out with a foot sprain.

After the backcourt duo of point guard Frankie Collins and shooting guard Jamiya Neal, there are questions for ASU’s men’s basketball team.

The Sun Devils open the season Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. MST against a Mississippi State Bulldogs team that last year went 21-13 and made the NCAA Tournament. On Saturday, ASU hosts a Texas Southern team that likewise returns several pieces from the core of last year’s team, which in the fourth game of 2022-23 defeated ASU in overtime.

“We’re going right to the deep end of the pool right away,” Hurley said of facing Mississippi State when he joined Arizona Sports’ Bickley & Marotta on Monday. “(Head coach) Chris Jans does a really good job there at Mississippi State. Every time a shot goes up … they really attack the glass, have really good athleticism and have mental toughness, play really hard.

“If we’re not ready for that type of street fight type environment Wednesday, then we’re not going to have a ton of success. It’s a really tough test for us out of the gate.”

While the Bulldogs are without All-SEC First Team center Tolu Smith (foot), the team including Smith returns nearly 81% of its scoring, 72% of its rebounding and 84% of its assists from a squad that lost in the First Four. Mississippi State had the No. 9 scoring defense (61 points per game) last season.

Meanwhile, Hurley will be learning on the fly with several new pieces assuredly in the rotation and Gaffney’s absence meaning a hole is to be filled.

Arizona State’s Alonzo Gaffney out to start season

Gaffney and the center Shawn Phillips Jr., a bouncy 7-footer who transferred from LSU, present the blueprint for ASU to remain a long, athletic defensive squad.

Hurley has characterized Gaffney’s recovery timeline as being a matter of weeks. The head coach said the lanky Gaffney, who averaged 3.2 points and 2.9 rebounds as a bench player last year, will play a big role for the team this year.

“Gaffney is older and he’s put together his best offseason, really has positioned himself well to have his best season,” Hurley told Bickley & Marotta. “He unfortunately in our closed scrimmage landed awkwardly on someone’s foot and has got a foot sprain and is going to miss some time. We’ll get him back in the mix. I think that’s really where our potential really starts to grow with what he does.”

Late transfer Jose Perez expected to step up

It’s clear that Collins and Neal will be leaned on from a continuity perspective by the Sun Devils. Collins has led two teams (Michigan and ASU) into NCAA Tournament play, while Neal found a new gear and confidence when he entered the rotation at the tail end of last season.

Hurley said Collins is “prepared to take another step in his game.”

“He’s one of our hardest workers, put a lot of time in with his perimeter shot,” Hurley said. “To add that dimension to his game — he’s so explosive and gets downhill. But he just knows what it takes to win and I think he makes winning plays. I think Jamiya Neal and Frankie have really built a connection.”

While Collins and Neal bring stability and scoring, it’s a matter of who else could help the Sun Devils on the perimeter.

Jose Perez, who has played at Gardner-Webb, Marquette and Manhattan in four college seasons, landed with Arizona State via the transfer portal just three weeks ago. And he’s already caught Hurley’s eye.

“That’s what I really love about Jose Perez and what he’s brought to our team in a very short period of time. He’s very experienced, played a lot of college basketball,” Hurley said. “And he’s a hard-nosed player, he’s going to give you everything he has. When our fans watch him play, they’re going to appreciate his work ethic, his toughness.

“He’s added that dimension to our team. We have some younger guys so it was important for us — and it’s very rare — to add a player of his caliber two weeks before the season starts.”

Kamari Lands (Louisville) and Adam Miller (LSU) are two other new names to watch in the backcourt pecking order.

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