Armed with a record of 13-2, Arizona State should be more than just a blip on the radar of college basketball analysts. The Sun Devils shot out of the gates with one of the best starts in program history, have an electrifying point guard with the ability to take over games, and have won most of their games by a comfortable margin. However, despite the early season success, the Sun Devils barely received their due attention from the local beat guys, let alone the national college sports media.
On Sunday night, everything changed.
When the Colorado Buffaloes came to town, the Sun Devils would face one of their most difficult tasks of the first half of the season. In the early part of the season, the Buffaloes represented exactly what the Sun Devils strived to be.
Colorado has impressive guard play with Askia Booker and Spencer Dinwiddie, a rangy forward in Andre Roberson, and their flashy offense can put up points with the best of them. At first glance, the Buffaloes appeared to be a near carbon copy of the Sun Devils, except a far more heralded team.
The Buffaloes are a season removed from an NCAA tournament appearance and returned many important pieces that contributed to last year's late season surge. The Sun Devils are a season removed from a abysmal 10-win year, and returned many question marks from a team that lost to Northern Arizona, Southern Miss, and Fresno State over a three game stretch.
Boasting a No. 6 overall ranking in the RPI, the Buffaloes benefitted from weathering the most difficult schedule in the country this season. They brought three wins over RPI Top 50 opponents to Tempe, whereas the Sun Devils spent their pre-holiday endeavors beating up on the likes of Coppin State and Central Arkansas.
When the teams took to the court on Sunday night, Colorado took off. Behind an outstanding early effort from Spencer Dinwiddie (19 points), the Buffaloes raced out to a 17-4 lead. Everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong for Arizona State, as the team missed 10 of its first 12 shots.
Facing a 13-point deficit just over nine minutes into the game, Coach Herb Sendek had to believe that his boys had finally run into a brick wall.
In the Arizona State loss to DePaul, the Sun Devils let a first half deficit break their spirits, and the Blue Demons dominated every facet of the game. Against Colorado, another blowout loss seemed certain.
With Jahii Carson staying scoreless in the first half, Evan Gordon playing just nine minutes, and the Sun Devil free throws trickling out of the hoop, there were few reasons to believe Arizona State had a chance.
For the Sun Devils, giving up would have been the easy way out. Colorado was supposed to win, so why should this team believe that they could overcome the deficit?
Instead of accepting that Colorado simply has more talent, the Sun Devils began to believe. First, Bo Barnes ignited the crowd with a three pointer off the bench, then Chris Colvin came on to spark some life in the maroon and gold, and soon enough, the Sun Devils began to feed Jordan Bachynski.
Improbably so, Arizona State managed to cut the deficit to just three points heading into the halftime break. All of a sudden, the Sun Devils looked like they could hang with a solid team.
When the teams left the locker room to begin the second half, the Sun Devils had all the momentum. Senior leader Carrick Felix led the hungry Arizona State offense to a stellar second half as they overcame a rough night from the perimeter with intense defense and calculated possessions.
Jordan Bachynski seemed to alter nearly every Buffalo shot inside the arc as he accumulated an astounding nine blocks. Jon Gilling cleaned up the boards en route to a double-double (10 points, 12 rebounds). Perhaps most impressive of all, Jahii Carson let the offense go.
The Buffaloes spent so much time worrying about Carson that he had to let his teammates do most of the damage. Instead of breaking out for 20 points in the second half, Carson finished with a quiet five points and three rebounds, but he might as well have been the MVP. Carson's selflessness demonstrated his true leadership and why Coach Sendek believes he's the perfect floor general for this Sun Devil offense.
When the game clock hit zeroes, the Sun Devils celebrated with a youthful exuberance. On paper, this team had a slim chance. After the first five minutes of play, that chance was out the window. Unfortunately for Colorado, someone forgot to tell the Sun Devils that they were supposed to fold and call it a night.
Behind a total team effort, the Sun Devils rolled to a 65-56 victory in front of a roaring crowd at Wells Fargo Arena. Not only do the Sun Devils now have an important conference victory on their resume, they have shown their opponents that they can win in a variety of ways.
Take Jahii Carson out, let Felix and Bachynski go to work.
Take out the interior, and watch the guards beat you from beyond the arc.
Is this Sun Devil team the best to come through Tempe in recent memory? Not by a long shot. Does this team still need a ton of help if it wants to reach the NCAA tournament? Absolutely.
Sunday's win simply showed that the Sun Devils have the power of belief on their side, and right now, that's a power that their opponents should fear.