The Arizona State Sun Devils begin Pac-12 play on Friday. With the non-conference portion of the team’s schedule in the books, House of Sparky put together a roundtable discussing, with assessments and insight coming from the host site’s men’s basketball coverage team and other local writers.
Q: Is this where you expected ASU to be after non-conference play?
Ardaya: I'd expected a couple better non-conference showings and a more consistent overall effort, but yes. Arizona State is not an exceptionally good or above-average team, and they played an incredibly tough schedule combined with harsh travel. Being 7-6 isn't terrible.
Clarke: This is right where I expected ASU to be at this stage — hovering around .500 after a challenging non-conference schedule. The Sun Devils showed flashes throughout a 7-6 start, but ultimately their weaknesses were exposed against worthy (and occasionally inferior) opponents.
Jones: Before the first game, I’d have said no, honestly. I thought ASU might overachieve during non-conference play and challenge the 10-3 record it posted during this portion last season.
Madden: Yes. The Sun Devils are extremely thin at arguably the most important position in basketball and played an extremely difficult schedule, both competition and travel-wise. 7-6 is not a bad result for a very average basketball team.
Pacleb: Pretty much. When I looked at the roster and the schedule, my expectations were that ASU wouldn’t finish above .500 at the end of the season, so this kind of falls in line with that.
Pelton: More or less. The backcourt has been impressive, the bigs have left a lot to be desired, and Hurley is as intense as ever. There were a couple of surprising results (see San Diego State and New Mexico State), but I suppose those outcomes canceled each other out.
Tauscher: They’re a bit worse than I expected. I thought they could get wins against Davidson and New Mexico State, but they let those get away.
Toscano: Yes. The lack of frontcourt depth after losing Vitaliy Shibel doesn't bode well for ASU. Additionally,I figured the talent gap against top opponents like Kentucky, Purdue and Creighton would be too much to overcome.
Q: Can ASU overcome the loss of Sam Cunliffe this season?
Ardaya: Maybe I'm in the small percentage of those who say removing Cunliffe could be addition by subtraction—in the short term. Of course, having more talented basketball players on your roster helps, but Cunliffe's departure now unclogs minutes that can go to Kodi Justice and Torian Graham out on the wing. Perhaps it leads to an advanced development for Jethro Tshisumpa. There's replacements ready for next year in Kimani Lawrence and Mickey Mitchell, too.
Clarke: While the loss of Sam Cunliffe is a big blow for the program going forward, his departure provides an opportunity for other wings on the roster to develop in a season with minimal expectations. At times, Cunliffe provided a much-needed scoring punch and displayed his impressive athleticism, but he often struggled to find his niche and shot the worst percentage among the players in ASU's rotation (34.8%). Hopefully he finds a program where he can thrive.
Jones: His departure will affect ASU, but it also won’t (if that makes sense). Losing a player above 6-foot-5 (there’s only four other healthy rostered players taller) restricts what Hurley can do as far as constructing lineups, and hurts defensively and on the glass. But since Cunliffe was so raw, replacing him and his production shouldn’t be exhaustingly hard in the interim.
Madden: I don't think many had Arizona State competing in the Pac-12 this season. The loss of Sam Cunliffe does far more to hurt ASU in the long term than in 2016. In fact, the Sun Devils should look to benefit (for now) by being able to rotate a veteran prescence in Kodi Justice on the floor for more minutes.
Pacleb: Although Cunliffe was a big contributor, I think ASU can compensate for this season. Between Graham, Holder and Evans, there’s plenty of offensive talent for Hurley to facilitate points. Where ASU will miss Cunliffe in a greater capacity is in the coming seasons when he was likely “The Guy” for ASU.
Pelton: Sure. The offense can lean on Holder and the Buffalo transfers to make up the loss in scoring, and the host of guards was already so deep that the team can whether the loss in terms of depth. It would have been great to see what Cunliffe could do for the program in the coming years, but with a good recruiting class coming in and Hurley's track record for attracting talent, I think they should be able to survive the surprise loss.
Tauscher: It might be tough this season because they only have four perimeter players they can really rely on. I think next season with another guard and two more forwards they’ll be able to rebuild the rotation without him. Right now I think it may just be too hard to find the depth. His rebounding and ability to attack helped them play small and they don’t have it as easy now.
Toscano: No. Sam Cunliffe is a special talent who was a consensus Top-50 player in the 2016 recruiting class. ASU was hopeful his continued development would help the team down the stretch, but now that hope is gone. The Sun Devils lose depth on the wing and will need Cunliffe's eventual contributions to come from elsewhere on the court. In the long run, ASU will be fine, but the loss of the talented freshman will be too much for the Sun Devils to overcome in conference play.
Q: What’s been the biggest surprise—good or bad.
Ardaya: I'd be remised if I didn't say the transfer of Sam Cunliffe, as it's probably the most unexpected moment of Bobby Hurley's tenure at ASU. Cunliffe was, maybe unfairly, anointed as the savior of the ASU program and Hurley's best-ever recruit, and suddenly he's gone after just 10 games.
Clarke: It has to be a pleasant surprise for Sun Devil fans that Obi Oleka is averaging a double-double. For a team that is severely lacking in the size department, having a savvy vet like Oleka consistently battling on the boards is crucial. Oleka was especially excellent in ASU's most recent home stand, averaging 17.3 points and 14.7 rebounds per game while shooting 52% from the field. **strums air guitar**
Jones: Off the court: Cunliffe’s transfer. On the court: Torian Graham, who—when hot—can score and score and score.
Madden: While most results have panned out as I would have expected, the win at San Diego State was very impressive and surprising. It was the Sun Devils’ first true road trip in a very hostile environment and it resulted in their best performance thus far. We'll see how they are on the road moving forward, though.
Pacleb: Torian Graham, holy cow. I knew he could fill it up, but his repertoire of moves from distance, long-range and at the rim has been a pleasant surprise.
Pelton: A toss-up between Graham's offense and Tshisumpa's defense. Both were relatively unknown quantities heading into the season but the pair has impressed me greatly on their respective sides of the floor thus far.
Tauscher: Torian Graham’s emergence would have to be the biggest surprise for me. I thought he would be a useful player but I didn’t expect him to just take over the scoring load for stretches of the game. He’s been electric and he can play on both sides of the floor.
Toscano: Torian Graham. His talent coming out of high school was well-known, but I did not see him having this type of impact early on in the season after not playing an organized game in about two years. He didn't need any sort of an adjustment period. He's greatly benefitted the team with his scoring and has also provided a necessary spark with some good defense.
Q: Who’s been the best performer so far, and why?
Ardaya: When I watch ASU play, everything runs through Shannon Evans II. He's the best player on the floor, running the offense, playing well on defense and being consistently in charge on the defensive end. But that was expected of him. My best performer is Torian Graham. He was a guy essentially kicked out of the program (which would have been his third program he'd been dismissed from), and suddenly he's not just a rotation guy but the team's best offensive weapon? Graham has been the brightest star for the Sun Devils so far.
Clarke: The Sun Devils' best performer so far has been Torian Graham. He's leading the team in scoring and will have to shoulder an even greater load in conference play with the loss of Cunliffe. With the exception of a 1-for-12 outing against Davidson, Graham has been remarkably consistent this season despite being a volume shooter. Graham will remain among the scoring leaders in the Pac-12 if he can remain consistent. It's a tall task for him to catch Markelle Fultz, though.
Jones: I don’t think there’s a wrong answer between Evans, Graham or Holder. Look at it this way: Evans underperformed against Northern Iowa (L), New Mexico State (L), and Creighton (L); Graham against Davidson (L), Kentucky (L) and Purdue (L); Holder against Tulane (W), Purdue (L) and New Mexico State (L). ASU needs all three to play well in order to win, and none of the three has really emerged as the preferred go-to man.
Madden: Other than the signing of Sam Cunliffe, bringing Torian Graham to this program was likely Bobby Hurley's best move yet. He is easily the most athletic player ASU has, is one of he few we've seen have the capability to completely take over a game, and is versatile enough to slot into four positions. He's not always consistent, but he's definitely the most dangerous Devil on the court.
Pacleb: I’m going to take a different perspective on this and say Tra Holder. Evans, Cunliffe and Graham were the shiny, new additions to Hurley’s team, but Holder has maintained his productivity without dominating the ball as much as he had to last season. His usage-rate is still around 25 percent, according to sports-reference.com, but he has improved his efficiency. He is shooting nearly nine percentage points higher from inside the three-point line, and his true shooting and effective field goal percentages are career-highs right now as well, all while posting his lowest turnover numbers of his career so far.
Pelton: Graham. The senior leads the team in points and has the highest effective field goal percentage in the Sun Devil backcourt. His ability to stretch every defense he faces really opens up the floor for guys like Holder and Evans, which will be crucial coming up here in Pac-12 play. Graham sparks this team like no other player on the roster, and while that makes him useful as a sixth man, he is ultimately too talented to not start every game on the floor.
Tauscher: Close call between Shannon Evans II and Graham but I think but I think Graham takes it for me. He’s now the leading scorer, carries a fairly sizable load on defense and also has to help out on the glass more than many guards. His stepping into the lineup has given the Sun Devils a new source of energy and intensity, and that will be crucial when conference play starts. He just provides so many different functions on the floor that I feel like calling him the best player on the team isn’t a stretch.
Toscano: Shannon Evans II. Torian Graham, Tra Holder and Evans all lead the team statistically, but I would say Evans has been the best performer. He has also taken a leadership role and has the talent to keep improving. He has 15.9 points per game to go along with 1.4 rebounds 4.6 assists per game. It seems like ASU goes as Evans goes. Hurley has always talked about his energy and Evans seems to be the emotional leader of the team to go along with his contributions in the box score.
Q: What are your expectations, predictions for conference play?
Ardaya: The Pac-12 seems quite weird this year, with there being an larger gap than usual between the contenders (UCLA, Oregon, Arizona) and the doormats (ASU, Oregon State, Washington State). I think ASU might be a half-tier above the bottom two and maybe sneak a couple more conference wins.
Clarke: I think ASU will end up in the middle of the Pac. This is a team that has the best turnover margin in the conference so far, but it also has the worst scoring defense. The Sun Devils are disciplined and skilled on the offensive end, but a lack of size and depth is going to amplify their struggles on defense — and it will definitely be exposed against the conference's elite. Despite what should be a relatively average conference record, I think this team could make a surprise run in the Pac-12 tournament if it stays healthy and improves on the defensive end.
Jones: I expect it to be really tough, especially considering how reliant ASU is of 3-point shooting. I think ASU finishes 9th in the conference, pulling off an upset or two thanks to its offense catching fire.
Madden: It was a tough non-conference schedule, but the way the Devils won a lot of close games over lesser teams was certainly discouraging to their conference hopes. The Pac-12 is very good this year, and I expect the Sun Devils to remain where they stood in the preseason poll, 11th.
Pacleb: ASU has the ability to pull off an upset here or there strictly based on its ability to rain threes, but my expectations are pretty low. Washington State and Oregon State are debatably in a worse situation than the Sun Devils when it comes to raw talent, but ASU’s lack of depth is concerning. ASU shouldn’t finish higher than 9th.
Pelton: This team may have a few holes, but lucky for them, so does every other team in the bottom half of the Pac-12. Arizona State should compete in each game it plays against those other bottom five teams, and who knows, maybe the club shocks someone like UCLA or Arizona somewhere along the way. Ultimately, I think they finish 6-12 and probably get the 10 seed in the conference tournament.
Tauscher: It’s going to be rough, but I expect ASU to be feisty in most of their games, They proved against Creighton they can summon a lot of energy against better opposition. I don’t think they’ll win much, but I expect good games and an upset or two in the tough Pac-12.
Toscano: I think the lack of frontcourt depth will hurt ASU in conference play. I see the Sun Devils finishing in the bottom three of the conference. They seem to live and die by the 3-pointer, so they may have a couple surprising wins. On the flip side, they may have a few bad losses to inferior teams. Additionally, one source of hope was Sam Cunliffe. Now, ASU can't rely on Cunliffe's development helping the team during conference play. I see ASU finishing pretty low in the Pac-12 this season.
Q: Does ASU actually break the school record for 3s in a single game this year? (Team has tied record twice this season.)
Ardaya, Clarke, Madden, Pacleb, Pelton, Tauscher: No.
Jones, Toscano: Yes.