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Column: First Four loss to ‘Cuse stings, but Wednesday was just the beginning for ASU basketball

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On to the future

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Four-Syracuse vs. Arizona State Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Dayton, Ohio — One by one, ASU’s trio of senior guards emerged from the bowels of UD Arena in Dayton. Tra Holder, with his black ASU hoodie over his head, came out first. He looked up as his head coach Bobby Hurley was walking toward him, the two shared an emotional embrace and a few words.

Moments later, Kodi Justice and Shannon Evans did the same.

The same chats and embraces most likely occurred after the Devils’ rise to prominence in during their 12-0 non-conference start. But, just as the Devils national profile has done in the last three months, the mood shifted. Those postgame moments will not be traveling to Detroit, the quartet’s run together is over.

ASU is out of the NCAA Tournament after losing to Syracuse 60-56 in the First Four Wednesday.

Where it ended is bittersweet. When Hurley took over the maroon and gold reigns three years ago, NCAA Tournament aspirations were not close to becoming a reality. The same could have been said the next year, too.

But, in September, Holder stood in the film room at the Weatherup Center and laid out his goals.

“(Getting to the Tournament), I think that’s the goal for every team in the country,” Holder said six months ago. “But, I think this year we’ve put a special emphasis with the seniors because it’s our last go-around, so we want to give it all we have.”

That’s the sweet part — it happened. Holder and Justice got the opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament while Evans got his second crack at it. The bitter reality, though, is that it’s over.

Wednesday was the end of three great Sun Devil careers, and what ASU fans hope is just scratching the surface for Hurley.

The three guards left the program better than they found it. They gave it a national profile, they gave it time in the spotlight and they gave it a base that should, and so far has, set up a recruiting trail that brings top-level prospects to Tempe.

Right Now, that looks like it’s on the right track. On top of young pieces like Remy Martin and Romello White, the Sun Devils are bringing in the 13th-best class in the country next season, according to ESPN — highlighted by four-star commits Taeshon Cherry, Luguentz Dort and Elias Valtonen.

“Just being able to give these younger guys the opportunity to play in a tournament like this,” Justice said when asked about his lasting impact. “This is going to help them get better, to help take this program further.”

One of those ‘younger guys’ — Martin — echoed Justice’s statement while adding that, despite the loss, ASU’s future is bright.

“It sucks right now that we lost,” he said. “But, I feel like we have a lot more things to come as far as the recruiting classes and the redshirts that will finally be able to play next year. This program has been amazing and will just continue to get better.”

In some ways, it feels as if Holder, Justice and Evans are the bridge from the old ASU — that struggled to make the tournament — to the new one that now expects to.

With the recruiting success and the long-term commitment to Hurley, many believe this is just an introduction to an ASU program that has much bigger aspirations then playing in Dayton.

That new mindset isn’t possible without the contributions from the three, however, and Hurley will be the first one to tell you that.

“My heart’s broken really that I can’t coach Shannon Evans and Tra Holder and Kodi Justice anymore. And that’s sadly disappointing for me,” Hurley said. “I hope I can continue to find guys like them. And if I do that, we’ll be in tournaments like this quite a bit moving forward.”

ASU basketball is in the Hurley era right now. Many expect big things from it — five-star recruits, deep runs in March and, maybe most importantly, beating Arizona — but it’s early.

The Sun Devils aren’t going to grow into a powerhouse or accomplish all of their goals overnight. Wednesday, though, was just the beginning.