For the first time in three seasons, victories in the Sun Devils' non-conference schedule serve as a testament to the strength and grit of this changing program. Victories that could garner national discussion and future NCAA bids.
Since Bobby Hurley took over the program back in April, the team has noticeably improved in all facets of the game. It's faster in transition. The team upped its recruiting game. It developed consistency at the free throw line. The team stacked its nonconference schedule with some of the toughest competition in the country.
Now, the Sun Devils face the toughest game they will play all year, both in conference and nonconference play. They face a team that was undefeated in the regular season, went 31-0 and made it to the Final Four in 2014's NCAA Tournament. They face the Kentucky Wildcats, with a date in Rupp Arena.
"It goes to a different level there," Hurley said. "The way people feel about basketball there and there's very few places in the world that can simulate that type of environment. I think that's why it's a real challenge so for our guys our toughness, our togetherness, the composure we need and then you have to play well. We want to try and go to the top of the mountain and see what it's like there. And sometimes it's not always good. But, we're willing to go there and take the chances."
Hurley said the idea to play Kentucky was brought to administrators when they were looking for a tough game to build into the schedule. While coaching Buffalo in 2014 at Kentucky, Hurley said his players got invaluable experience there playing in that game and decided to write it into the future for his new team in the Sun Devils.
"Watching my guys play there last year made me feel like I was jealous of my players that they had a chance to play in that environment in front of those crowds," Hurley said. "As a former player it makes you sad that your career's over. They (Kentucky) were a special team last year, they just had so much size and mobility and just were really good at every position and well coached."
The Sun Devils have downed good opponents in Creighton on the road and Texas A&M at home. They've only dropped two games so far this season, one due to what forward Savon Goodman suggests was an underestimation of a team that played fast down the floor in Sacramento State, and one in overtime to a tough Marquette team after every single one of ASU's bigs had fouled out of the game.
Opening jitters are long gone, players adjusted to the new system and the defense is becoming more secure in controlling the glass as each game passes. Because of this, Hurley is allowing his team to play more freely and share the ball, while exuding confidence and knowing there is a structure to fall back on. Confidence, he finds is the most beneficial thing he can directly offer his team.
"I feel like playing for someone who played the game like he did, national champion, coached under Mike Krzyzewski, I think it just gives us a lot of confidence," Goodman said. "He lets us go out there and play and as long as we're playing hard and playing through our mistakes he's not agitated. As soon as you're not playing defense or not playing as hard as he knows you can go, that's when he's going to get ticked off and get on you so the amount of confidence that he gives us is incredible. I can't explain it."
This newfound confidence the Sun Devils are playing with has multiple sources than just the coach. One such coming from the win over Texas A&M, a team that was put in the same conversation as the team it will face in blue this Saturday.
"That win definitely gives us a lot of confidence going into Kentucky," guard Tra Holder said. "Just giving us the confidence that we can play with teams from the SEC and I heard that them, Vanderbilt and Kentucky were the top three teams in the SEC so it gives us a little energy boost and gets us ready for Saturday."
The biggest thing the team is focusing on now is preventing the 23,000 fans that sprawl Rupp Arena from having anything to get excited over. Holder emphasized the need to prevent a run that will prove hard, if not impossible to climb back from when there's essentially a sixth man helping them out.
"I just think dribble penetration and transition defense," Hurley said. "We can't afford to give up dunks in the open court, we can't turn it over and then lead to those type of plays that are going to get their crowd excited."
To avoid those problems, Hurley is likely to use a bigger lineup on the floor as fans have seen in the last three games. With Holder at point, Gerry Blakes at shooting guard and forwards Willie Atwood, Savon Goodman, and Obina Oleka all on the floor at once, it provides depth from the outside as well as strength on the glass down low.
"I think it opens up the floor because Willie can shoot," Goodman said. "And Obi can shoot the three so it opens up. We can play more out and not so much inside game, a strong game and I think we don't get abused on the boards when we go small and that gives us the advantage on offense when we're rebounding the ball fast and breaking out because anybody can one-two dribble break it out up to the guard and then we're in transition trying to get quick, high screen or roll to the basket."
Goodman also says Holder's improvement in the offseason has provided him with more options in driving to the hoop.
"I think Tra worked on his pull up and his three pointers. Also, I don't see too many guards coming up to set a screen and then going under and that also sets up a lot of things for me because when guards go under they give me a free lane to roll to the basket. He's just grown as a player and is becoming a tremendous point guard for the Sun Devils."
So with confidence in tow and a fresh set of legs having had a full week since their last game against A&M, the Sun Devils head to Rupp Arena with a brand new mindset as a new face leads this squad to Lexington.
"I think we're just working a lot harder than we ever have," Holder said. "We know what it takes to play at a high level. We're a different team now."