Arizona State fell 76-70 to Richmond Sunday night in the NIT, ending their 2014-15 campaign with an 18-16 record. An above .500 mark, yes, but an underachievement for a team whose goal was "return and advance" after falling to Texas in the first round of the NCAA Tournament the previous year.
The word that marked the Sun Devils preseason was uncertainty. ASU had to make up for the production of a talented trio which included Jahii Carson, Jordan Bachynski and Jermaine Marshall. The offseason was a roller coaster of transfers followed by a number of late junior college pick ups. Egor Koulechov, Brandan Kearney and Caelen Robinson all transferred out while Gerry Blakes, Willie Atwood, Savon Goodman and Roosevelt Scott made their way to Tempe as JUCO transfers along with new assistant coach Barret Peery. He came from Indian Hills Community College to replace Eric Musselman.
The recruiting class included Tra Holder, a small guard expected to replace the talent of Jahii Carson, a local product Kodi Justice who Herb Sendek labeled a Pete Maravich type early in the season, and big man Connor MacDougall.
The new names without a lot of film meant almost nobody except the coaching staff knew what the starting lineup might look like in January come the start of conference play. While Atwood was the most hyped but Scott showed a lot of explosiveness in early season practices as well. They posed a threat to the returners which included Bo Barnes, Shaquielle McKissic, Eric Jacobsen, Jonathan Gilling, Chance Murray and Sai Tummala.
McKissic emerged as a leader early and the first starting lineup of the season against Chicago State yielded a mix of old and new. Sendek started Holder, Blakes, McKissic, Atwood and Jacobsen. In the first three victories, Sendek also tried Blakes on the ball with Scott at the two-guard spot as well. ASU survived just a 10-point victory over Bethune-Cookman as they got their feet wet, but didn't allow more than 50 points in their first three contests. Defense was clearly the team's calling card in the early going.
ASU then went on the road for the first time in Kansas City and dropped two straight to Maryland and Alabama. Kodi Justice got his first start against the Crimson Tide with 8 points and 4 assists in 34 minutes. Both losses were tough for the Sun Devils who led a majority of the time in both games.
The Sun Devils returned home with a win over Colgate and a convincing victory over UNLV when Jacobsen knotted a double-double and Justice had 13 points with six assists and five boards. A loss to Texas A&M and a victory over Pepperdine at home were followed by another loss on the road at Marquette in Savon Goodman's debut where he had just 7 points in 8 minutes.
The roughest patch of the out of conference slate came next in a triple overtime loss to Lehigh which dropped the Sun Devils to 6-5 overall. It overshadowed a 24-point, 12-rebound effort by Goodman. The Sun Devils regained some steam as they headed into conference play 8-5 with wins over eventual NCAA Tournament team Harvard and Detroit. Goodman continued to impress with another double-double against Detroit followed by 10 points and 8 boards against the Crimson.
ASU then hit a brick wall, dropping their first four conference games to Arizona, both Oregon schools and Utah. The Wildcats and Utes blew out the Sun Devils while rebounding and late game free throws plagued ASU in the pacific northwest. The Sun Devils finally found their first conference win at home against Colorado when five players hit double-digit points including 16 from McKissic. By this time Sendek had settled in on the starting lineup he would finish the season with consisting of Jacobsen, McKissic, Goodman, Holder and Blakes with Gilling getting the primary minutes off the bench. It was also around this time that the Curtain of Distraction rose to national prominence.
Five days later, the Sun Devils dominated Cal on the road in Berkley thanks to a combined 33 points from Barnes and Justice off the bench. It would be Justice's last full game of the season after he broke his ankle in the following game against Stanford and miss the rest of the season. In some ways, it helped the Sun Devils because Holder now knew the point guard job was his for the rest of the season. He really showed improvement down the stretch after Justice was injured, allowing him to earn Pac-12 All-Freshman team honors.
Though the Sun Devils lost to Stanford in Palo Alto, the victories over Colorado and Cal showed hope that the Sun Devils could save the season and potentially piece together enough to make an NIT run and just maybe find themselves on the NCAA Tournament bubble. The Oregon schools took the trip down to Tempe and this time ASU was able to split the series, taking the Beavers, but letting an Oregon victory slip through their fingers in overtime.
Next up was a Saturday afternoon date which would highlight the Sun Devils season. Bo Barnes had 18 points and a made three from beyond NBA range which put the dagger in the then No. 6 Arizona Wildcats at home for the second straight season. ASU hung with the team from Tucson on the boards and shot over 50 percent from the floor to get the Sun Devils to victory. Goodman added 15 points and 9 rebounds while holding Arizona big man Kaleb Tarczewski to just two points. ASU is the only team to beat the eventual Pac-12 champion in each of the past three seasons.
ASU then fell 74-71 to Washington State on the road in spite of 24 points from Gerry Blakes. ASU couldn't stop Dexter Kernich-Drew who finished with 27 points on the night. The loss nearly put any NCAA Tournament hopes for the Sun Devils to bed.
ASU then rattled off three straight victories over Washington, UCLA and USC which really showcased the Sun Devils growth since out of conference plan and in particular the maturation of Tra Holder. The Sun Devils downed the Los Angeles schools by a combined 7 points while Holder had a combined 23 points and 12 assists in both games.
Outside of the Lehigh loss, the maroon and gold's second worst appearance came against Utah in Salt Lake on Feb. 26. The Sun Devils trailed 41-9 at halftime on the way to a 83-41 defeat. ASU made just 14 of 50 shots and were 3 of 16 from beyond the arc. Shaquielle McKissic had 18 points against Colorado but he couldn't match Buffs' senior Askia Booker who had 29 points in a very physical game which the Sun Devils lost 87-81.
After getting swept in the Rocky Mountains, ASU had an uphill climb toward a beneficial seed in the Pac-12 Tournament. They needed Stanford to lose two games and needed to beat both Cal and Stanford at home to gain the fifth seed in the tournament. The Sun Devils did exactly that. Shaquielle McKissic had 23 points and 7 boards to help bring down the Cardinals as Herb Sendek beamed with pride for his team in the post game press conference and the energy they brought.
They capped off the home schedule with a victory over Cal where both Barnes and Gilling declined to start. Cal got off to a hot shooting start but eventually cooled off and allowed the Sun Devils to take the lead for good. McKissic had 21 points in the win while Goodman added 18 points and 8 boards, capping off an 0-4 start to conference play to finish 9-9.
It all came crashing down in the Pac-12 Tournament, however, when ASU was matched up with USC in the first round. The Sun Devils were up 14 points with 9 minutes left in the game but the Trojans came roaring all the way back. Elijah Stewart hit two free throws for USC with 3.4 seconds remaining to seal the victory and upset. Since the Pac-12 expanded to 12 teams, ASU became the first five seed to ever get upset by a 12 seed in the opening round.
The disappointment for fans in Vegas didn't deter the NIT selection committee. The Sun Devils drew the fifth seed in the NIT and traveled across the country to face UConn. They upset the Huskies on their home court without senior All-American Conference guard Ryan Boatright. Terrence Sammuel couldn't make up for his absence. ASU won the battle on the boards and came away with a 68-61 win and small upset of the defending national champions.
The Sun Devils then headed down the east coast to play Richmond Sunday. Both teams engaged in a hard fought physical struggle. Jacobsen picked up his second foul early and eventually fouled out with five minutes left. Gerry Blakes had a chance to win the game at the buzzer but missed a floater. Although ASU dominated Richmond by 16 rebounds, they scored just eight points in the final eight minutes of regulation which allowed the Spiders to come back and eventually get the win in overtime thanks to a four-point play by Kendall Anthony.
While the ultimate goal wasn't achieved, the team as a whole did show marked improvement throughout the year as Goodman was added to the mix and Holder hit his stride.It wasn't as exciting as the Jahii Carson era, but the rise of the Curtain of Distraction helped attendance numbers and McKissic still added a number of huge dunks. Another basketball win over Arizona always pleases the masses of the fan base as well. If nothing else, Sendek echoed all season that this was a "fun group to coach" and this team didn't have a lot of attitudes on it.
Atwood didn't live up to his potential, but Goodman clearly took ASU to another level it didn't have before Marquette. Scott disappeared down the stretch after he was suspended indefinitely for the Bay Area road trip for unknown reasons but if Sendek can harness his raw ability he may still have a shot at being a role player again next season.
Assuming no transfers, ASU has a good amount of its 2015-16 core group already set. McKissic, Gilling and Barnes are gone, so the Sun Devils clearly lose a three point shooting presence but Holder, Blakes, Goodman, Atwood, Scott, Jacobsen, Justice, Murray and MacDougall are all set to return for the time being.
- The Richmond game allowed Gilling to play in his 132nd game as a Sun Devil, putting him first all-time in games played for the maroon and gold.
- Shaquielle McKissic led the team with 12.4 points per game followed by Gerry Blakes at 11.2 and Savon Goodman with 11.1
- Average home game attendance was 5,985
- The Pac-12 preseason media poll predicted ASU would finish 9th, the Sun Devils finished 5th.
- The team averaged 69.4 points per game, the team free throw percentage was 66.7 percent, the team field goal percentage was 44.5 percent. The team averaged 12.7 assists and 13.9 turnovers per game.