Bobby Hurley’s first season in Tempe wasn’t the breakthrough campaign. One game into his second tenured year coaching the Arizona State Sun Devils, it’s premature to say the 2016-17 season will provide the breakthrough either, but at least his team is trending towards achieving it.
A key to doing so is score at will, something the ASU backcourt managed to do much of during the Sun Devils’ (1-0) season-opening, 88-70 win over the Portland State Knights at Wells Fargo Arena on Friday.
ASU was favored to win by an 18-point margin, therefore it wasn’t so much a surprise Hurley’s group won by the amount it did, but the manner in which it did so was impressive.
ASU’s four-guard starting lineup composed of Tra Holder, Shannon Evans II, Sam Cunliffe, Kodi Justice and Obi Oleka penetrated the Portland State key with ease, but each found themselves unable to finish at the rim early on.
“I think we got a lot shots at the beginning that we just didn’t make,” Holder said. “The ball just wasn’t falling for us, but as the game went on we started to make those shots.”
Holder channeled 23 points hitting 7 of 14 shots, including 9 of 11 from the free-throw line along with four assists. The junior’s aggressive play spurred the ASU offense, impressing Hurley.
“I thought Tra was very good tonight getting in the lane,” the second-year head coach said.
Evans—who ended the first half shooting 3 of 9 in his first live action in over a calendar year—shook off the rusty start to finish with 19 points, making eight of his 18 shot attempts (2 of 12 3-pointers). He also added four rebounds and two assists.
Hurley said the former Buffalo transfer was excited to play after having to sit out a year due to NCAA transfer rules.
“I think he’s gonna play a lot better,” Hurley said of Evans. “He picked it up some in the second half, but he would probably agree it wasn’t his best.”
Evans shared his coach’s sentiments, admitting to early nerves.
“(I had) a lot of butterflies pregame,” the senior guard said. “But I know I’ve got a guy like Tra, Kodi, that have my back, so I played kind of freely.”
Though the buzz surrounding the team has been centered around the Sun Devils’ starting backcourt of Evans and Holder, it was Hurley’s bench which carried the offense. It contributed 30 points to ASU’s output, headlined by the efforts of senior guard Torian Graham.
In an exhibition win over Division III UC Santa Cruz last week, Graham caught fire for 23 points. He poured in 23 again during his official debut on Friday. He shot 9 of 11 from the field, including 4 of 5 from beyond the arc to kick-start the ASU offense after a sluggish start.
“Torian was obviously terrific today shooting the ball and gave us a spark in the first half,” Hurley said. “That’s who he’s been for awhile.”
Evans said he wasn’t surprised by Graham’s stellar showing.
“To you guys it’s like ‘wow.’ To us it’s like, ‘Torian,’” Evans said, matter-of-factly.
Graham hasn’t played in an official contest since March of 2014, when he was still at Chipola College in Florida. He said the moment wasn’t too big for him Friday.
“I prepared very well this week,” Graham said. “All the weeks and the years before this.”
“He’s been great,” Hurley said of the transfer. “He’s certainly one of our best players.”
Graham, ASU’s sixth man, said he doesn’t mind coming off the bench, adding he relishes what he’s able to provide for the team in his current role.
“When I come off the bench, I can see how the flow of the game’s going,” Graham said. “I like being a spark off the bench for the team and coming in and giving the extra boost.”
The trio of Graham, Evans and Holder combined for 65 of the Sun Devils’ 88 points in the win. Hurley said he’s confident in his players’ ability to score the ball, saying it’s not an issue he’s overly concerned of.
“I give my players freedom,” he said. “All those guys are very capable, and I think we can improve.”