If the old saying “it’s hard to beat a good team three times” is true, the Arizona State Sun Devils might be in trouble when they face the Stanford Cardinal in their Pac-12 Tournament opener on Wednesday afternoon.
Arizona State was able to pick off Stanford up on The Farm back in December when the Cardinal were missing their second-leading rebounder and third-leading scorer in Michael Humphrey, and the Sun Devils used a 12-2 run in the final 76 seconds of the second meeting of the season to sweep the regular season set despite being outplayed for the majoirty of the night.
But while Jerod Haase team’s will be out for revenge today, Arizona State’s players and coaches are of the opinion that the experience gained from those first two victories will only help in its quest to advance to the tournament’s quarterfinal round.
“In the first matchup, I thought our dribble penetration opened up things more on the perimeter for our guards and guys like Torian (Graham),” said head coach Bobby Hurley after practice on Monday. “The guards will have to do a good job again of penetrating and making plays.”
Graham finished that game in Stanford with a career-high 30 points, then put up 24 in the following matchup. It’s safe to say his number will be circled and underlined as a part of Stanford’s game plan for the day.
“He came off screens extremely hard and used those screens well,” Hurley said when asked about his senior. “He can do that against most teams though, so it's hard to put your finger on exactly why he’s had two of his biggest scoring games against them.”
Three Sun Devils - Graham, Hurley, and guard Shannon Evans II - have all had various degrees of success in conference tournaments themselves, all at places other than Arizona State.
Hurley and Evans led the Buffalo Bulls to a MAC Tournament title just weeks before they left for Tempe in 2015, with Evans scoring a team-high 18 points in the final against Central Michigan. Graham was also on that team, but had to sit out the season after transferring in from Houston halfway through the year.
“At Buffalo we were in a little better position because we had a higher seed and a bye through the first few rounds,” said Evans when asked about the experience. “Now we are more the underdog, so we have to be hungry, ready to go, and play with each other. We can't worry about individual stats or anything like that because we have to win."
Hurley is no stranger to winning championships, but when it came to the ACC Tournament during his playing days at Duke, his Blue Devils only emerged victorious once in his four years there.
He did, however, make sure to point out that he had more success in the tournaments that followed those.
“I remember that I won more national championships than ACC championships,” Hurley said. “That might have been unusual."
In order for this Hurley-led team to make the NCAA Tournament, the Maroon and Gold will need to win four games in four days in Las Vegas, a feat that seams like a tall order for a team that only goes five or six deep.
If they do get by Stanford for a third time this season, a date with top-seeded Oregon awaits them on Thursday afternoon at T-Mobile Arena. They would then need an additional two victories to secure the conference’s automatic bid, wins that would likely have to come against two of the top four teams in a top-loaded league.
According to guard Kodi Justice, the key will be taking things one step at a time.
“I’m still trying to get my first win in the tournament so I don’t know how it goes to play three or four days in a row,” said the junior. “We know we have to win it though to make the NCAA Tournament. It will be really tough only playing with five or six guys, but I feel like we’re going to give it all we got every single day.”