Are the Arizona State Sun Devils ahead of schedule?
Going into the season, it was believed new coach Bobby Hurley would have a positive impact, but it’s not likely anyone saw them finishing their non-conference slate with a 10-3 record that includes road victories over Creighton and UNLV as well as a home win over Texas A&M, especially after a season-opening loss to Sacramento State in Tempe.
Yet, that’s exactly where the Devils are as they begin Pac-12 play, and it’s a really good spot to be in.
“We feel good about where we are and what we’ve done up to this point,” Hurley told Doug and Wolf on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM Wednesday. “We’ve gotten out of it what I think we were looking to get out of it, speaking of the non-conference and winning a couple road games.
“We were tested throughout our schedule and I think we stood up to it pretty well and I think we’re in a good spot. We’re excited about the possibilities of where this season can take us.”
The first-year coach pointed to the play of sophomore guard Tra Holder, who leads the team with 14.5 points per game, along with the veteran leadership the program has received as reasons to look forward to what is in store going forward.
Even defeats on the road at Kentucky and in the championship game of the Legends Classic to Marquette can be viewed as positives, in both the context of the team trying to grow a little as well as in the perception of the team’s season. The tough non-conference slate has given ASU the 29th-ranked RPI in the country as well as the 46th most difficult strength of schedule, which are both things the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee looks at in March.
But that’s still a few months away.
In the meantime Hurley wants to keep building on the momentum his program is creating, both on the court and in recruiting, where just Tuesday evening word came out that ASU had landed four-star recruit Daniel Mading, a power forward in the class of 2017.
The coach cannot comment on players until they sign their official letters of intent, so he cannot talk about Mading, but he was able to acknowledge four-star commits Jethro Tshisumpa, a center, and Sam Cunliffe, a small forward, both of whom have signed with the school.
“I just think there’s a buzz about our program,” he said. “There’s genuine excitement about what we can create here at Arizona State and people that would come and visit see what a great place it is to live and go to school and what a great conference the Pac-12 is.
“Then you look at our non-conference, and we’re going out and we’re trying to schedule aggressively and play in big-time games that competitors want to play in. So it’s a really great package to sell to recruits, so we’ve been fortunate to get a young man from Texas to sign with us here for next year, a 6-foot-9 player, and we have a kid from the state of Washington that we think has got a tremendous future. So we’re going to recruit nationally and certainly we’ll hope to use some of my ties in the east as well.”
The idea is that the more top recruits Hurley can land, the more the Sun Devils will win, and the more the Sun Devils win, the more top recruits they will land. It can be a snowball effect, really, and it’s the way a program that traditionally has not had much success can begin to turn things around.
All that is for the future, though. In the present, Hurley is getting his team ready to open Pac-12 play Sunday afternoon in Tempe against the No. 8 Arizona Wildcats.
“It’s going to be very technical, it’s going to be a fine-tuning of what we do, very detail-oriented this week,” Hurley said of how he will prepare the team. “I’m not going to have to motivate for this one, I don’t think, just based on what I’m seeing I know our guys are excited to play that game and for the start of the Pac-12 season here.
“It’s a lot different than playing a lower or mid-major basketball game.”
It really is.
Though Arizona has for the most part had the upper hand in the rivalry, the Devils have won each of the last two meetings in Tempe and three of the last four. All have been tight, competitive and memorable affairs.
For Hurley, who played at Duke and coached at Buffalo, rivalries are nothing new. But this one is different, and it will be his first taste of the Duel in the Desert that pits his team against one of college basketball’s powers, a program that has reached the Elite 8 the last two seasons and is for the most part viewed as a national championship contender.
“I get real excited for these games and since I’ve been here it’s something that people are talking about constantly and have the back-and-forth between the two schools and you’ll have people come up to you and say, ‘Hey, I’m a UofA fan but good luck this year except that game’ and things like that, and you know how much it means to your fan base,” Hurley said.”So you prepare accordingly for that because you know it’s an important game.
“I tasted that as a player and there’s plenty of room in this area to have a couple of really good college basketball programs and we’re hoping to elevate that and we’re in the process of doing it, just based on the season we’re having. But I certainly have a lot of respect for Sean Miller and his coaching abilities and their program and what they’ve done over the years, so it’s going to be a real challenge on Sunday.”