Oh, yes. College basketball season is back. As always, a new cast of stars will emerge over the next few months before people start dancing and nobody really knows what on earth will happen, but a few things are pretty clear, specifically in the Pac-12:
Oregon is still the most talented team in the Pac-12.
Arizona and UCLA are the top of the second-tier in the conference.
The middle of the Pac-12 is pretty difficult to separate.
Washington State is projected to finish last in the conference.
Arizona State came in at 11th in the conference, according to the preseason media poll. At first, that was a little surprising given ASU returns (and adds a key piece) to its backcourt that is experienced and talented. Tra Holder and Kodi Justice have two years of play under their belts, and now they a handful of springy, new running mates. Head coach Bobby Hurley also had a solid recruiting cycle, bringing in a couple top-100 recruits.
All those things look like they should add up to a higher projection and higher expectations, but glaring question marks surround the roster.
Before we get too deep into the “why’s” and “how’s” of what might happen this season, let’s do a quick recap...
- Willie Atwood (graduation)
- Gerry Blakes (graduation)
- Eric Jacobsen (graduation)
- Savon Goodman (transfer)
- Andre Spight (transfer)
- Shannon Evans II (transfer, redshirted last season)
- Torian Graham (transfer, redshirted last season)
- Sam Cunliffe (freshman)
- Jethro Tshisumpa (freshman)
- Ramon Vila (freshman)
- Andre Adams (freshman, redshirted last season)
Gained but won’t see this season:
- Vitaly Shibel (freshman, torn ACL)
- Romello White (freshman, academic redshirt)
The Sun Devils lost 59 percent of their scoring and 60 percent of their rebounding production from a season ago. Blakes, Atwood, Jacobsen and Spight (in his last few games) were all key contributors all season. The graduated seniors also were key in aiding a thin frontcourt that finished 9th in the Pac-12 in rebounding.
But that’s not to say Arizona State will have trouble replacing that production. Evans, Graham and Cunliffe are all projected to be big-time players in the rotation.
Hurley has been lauding praise toward Evans, calling him the “equivalent” of adding a McDonald’s All-American to the roster. Evans will add to the backcourt duo of Holder and Justice to create a interchangeable hassle of a trio for defenses to deal with when ASU has the ball.
Graham was a top-100 recruit in high school and finally gets to show what he can do. His performance against UC Santa Cruz proved he could score in bunches, especially his 9-point explosion to end the first half in the exhibition.
He can also do this:
Cunliffe comes in with the expectations that come with being a top-50 prospect, the Seattle Times Player of the Year and the presumed “next-in-line” of successful players from Rainier Beach High School. At 6-foot-6, Cunliffe has the bounce and body that screams “college-ready,” but of course, a learning curve still exists.
But also, this:
Tshisumpa and Adams have size but come with question marks. Tshisumpa is a raw, physical beast. His 6-foot-9, 260-pound frame is a spectacle, but his basketball IQ isn’t quite there yet.
That’s fine. He’s young. Adams is coming off ACL injuries. Yes, multiple. ASU is taking its time with him, but given how thin the frontcourt is, ASU needs him badly.
Romello White is a name the Sun Devils surely wish was on the Gained list. The No. 81 player in the 2016 class, according to Scout.com, has reportedly been impressive in practice with his athletic ability and overall skill set, but academic issues will keep him on the sidelines this season.
*whispers* Thon Maker would’ve helped this team...a lot. *cries*
Death by Death Lineup
Hurley has been pretty adamant in the preseason that Arizona State will use the non-conference schedule to figure out its lineups that will best compensate for its lack of depth down low. That likely lends itself to a lot of involuntary small-ball featuring senior forward Obinna Oleka as the proverbial five spot.
Oleka was at times the team’s most productive player, especially down the stretch, but he is a natural three who could spend time playing at power forward, taking advantage of his ability off the bounce and from beyond the arc.
The Maroon and Gold’s starting five against UC Santa Cruz was as follows:
G Shannon Evans II
G Tra Holder
G Kodi Justice
F Sam Cunliffe
F Obinna Oleka
That lineup looks like a few things.
First, every single player in that lineup can shoot the three ball. For better or worse, ASU could have five players probing the perimeter on offense. A handful of possessions featured a Sun Devil driving and kicking to the basket, replacing the man who was now attacking the rim. In theory, if the ball keeps moving, this could put great stress on an opposing defense.
It also lends itself to a swarming, pesky defense that allows for switching on- and off-ball screens. Evans projects to be a high-level on-ball defender. Holder and Justice showed improvement toward the end of last season in the aspect.
Oleka showed his ability to bang away with bigger players, but his defensive range was naturally limited. Cunliffe could also have this ability to guard up to four positions, but it’ll come down to how he picks up Hurley’s defensive principles.
Hurley said in his first press conference that last season’s defensive performance was frustrating given his background on that end, but while the Sun Devils might be able to force opponents into tough shots and turnovers, cleaning up the boards is going to be an issue.
Arizona State will need its guards to mix it up on the defensive glass, something Gerry Blakes did as well as any guard in the Pac-12, leading the Sun Devils with 136 defensive rebounds. It doesn’t take a genius to know ASU should struggle in this aspect.
Tshisumpa and Vila could help with their size, but both looked a little lost at times on defense against the Banana Slugs. Tshisumpa particularly lost his position on help-defense or last his man as the shot went up, surrendering an offensive rebound. That said, he also had a block that showed his athleticism, coming down from the top of the key to help against a baseline driver before pinning a layup against the backboard.
He looked fluid in that moment, but when the Sun Devils went into their zone looks, it’s clear there’s room for growth. At this stage, that’s fine.
Again, offensively, Arizona State should be pretty potent. Graham is a heck of an option to bring off the bench, and he could possibly start in Justice’s spot. Both seem interchangeable as far as fit into the starting lineup and second-unit.
The team should not lack any sort of three-point shooting. Holder made a big jump last season, and Evans and Justice are both 40 percent shooters from three-point land. The issue is ASU needs to shoot well from outside to produce on offense. Oleka has a nice face-up game from the post, but like last season, the Sun Devils do not have a consistent scoring threat from the block.
The Maroon and Gold guards should be able to penetrate and work a pick-and-roll well enough to provide a lot of opportunities for the bigs, but there could be stretches in which ASU settles for jumpers. That backcourt group could be as productive as almost any in the Pac-12 when firing on all cylinders.
Having White (or Maker *still crying*) available would have changed a lot for the Sun Devils. Playing multiple players who can run an offense is a trend in college basketball that works, and a talented, experienced backcourt is normally a big-time indicator of success in March, but none of that matters if ASU can’t find consistent production from its frontcourt.
Basketball fans should have a lot of fun watching this team’s backcourt. The Sun Devils ranked 141st in pace last season, according to sports-reference.com. In Hurley’s last season at Buffalo, the Bulls ranked 33rd in the category. Given the experience in the backcourt and the addition of Cunliffe, Graham and Evans, the Sun Devils should play at a faster pace and get plenty of shots up, if it can clean up the defensive glass.
For every bit of optimism that the perimeter encourages, the frontcourt brings up as many reasons for concern. Tshisumpa and Vila look like they’ll have a big learning curve before they start to play up to their potential. Adams is coming along from ACL issues, so nobody really knows how much to expect from him. Oleka can fight mightily under the basket, but the Pac-12 does not pull any punches when it comes to post-play.
Overall, the Sun Devils are more talented than last season, but the holes might be greater. If Goodman was still in Tempe, or if White was eligible, projections would be higher. The Sun Devils also missed out on adding some frontcourt talent when Troy Baxter opted for UNLV instead of ASU.
That, plus Arizona State’s hellish non-conference schedule makes it hard to find a lot of games that the Sun Devils should win. They might steal some because college basketball is college basketball, but projection-wise, it might be another difficult season for the Fighting Hurleys.
My prediction (this is the part you save to make fun of me at season’s end):
Overall record: 13-18 (does not include potential Pac-12 or preseason tournament runs)
Pac-12 finish: 11th