For the first time since he sat at a podium in Dayton, Ohio just minutes after Syracuse defeated the Sun Devils 60-56 in the First Four, ASU head coach Bobby Hurley spoke to the media again.
After starting 12-0, Sun Devil fans, and the team itself, expected more than simply squeaking into the NCAA Tournament and losing in the First Four. But Hurley said the season was no-doubt a success, he is made aware of that everyday at the gym. There, he says people often stop him and ask about recruiting and the program as a whole — something that wasn’t happening before that.
“I think we really exceeded a lot of expectations early and just built a whole new set,” Hurley said. “There’s steps that you take. It’s rare that you make a from nowhere to Final Four type move. So for us as a program, to get in the tournament, get a taste of that experience, that’s all you want.”
Hurley said he frequently thinks about that First Four game. Faring well against Syracuse’s zone and controlling a very low-scoring game, ASU couldn’t hang on to a seven-point lead with about seven minutes to go.
“The numbers “49-42” jump into my head a lot,” he said. “I just would have loved to see what would have been next. That’s always the regret that you feel as a coach when your season ends.”
That game also ended the careers of ASU’s three senior guards Tra Holder, Shannon Evans II and Kodi Justice — the founding father’s of the Devils’ Guard U moniker. But this season, Guard U will have a completely different look.
For one, it’ll be a lot bigger.
ASU’s four-man 2018 class is ranked No. 11 in the nation by 247Sports. Guards Luguentz Dort and Elias Valtonen and forwards Taeshon Cherry and Uros Plavsic give ASU’s offense a whole new dimension.
At times last season, ASU would have three guys on the court who were under 6-4. This year, sophomore guard Remy Martin will be the only scholarship player under that size on the Devils’ roster.
Plavsic is 7-1, Cherry is 6-8 and forward Zylan Cheatham, who had to sit out last season with 6-4 guard Rob Edwards because of NCAA transfer rules, is also 6-8.
“I think this year’s roster just gives me a ton of options to play a lot of different ways,” Hurley said. “I can see scenarios where there’s five guys out there who are 6-7 or bigger, which I’ve never had here.”
But, rather than making his players conform to his strategy, Hurley is going to structure an offense around his players.
“I don’t have one set way that I force my players to play,” he said. “It’s determined by your roster and what that looks like and the makeup and how everyone mixes and we’ll come up with the best way we need to play this season.”
For ASU’s head coach, having size to work with is a gift he’s been waiting to get since he arrived in Tempe. Last season, the fourth-year head man would often get frustrated with the Devils’ failure to rebound, no matter how much bigger their opponents were.
Despite his efforts to engrain a rebounding mentality into his team, ASU continued to struggle on the boards — all the way to Dayton. This year, it will be the topic of fewer conversations.
“Just having more size, guys that can go get t the basketball,” he said. “I think we’re going to be a much better rebounding team. We have the potential to be, by far, the best defensive team that I’ve coached here, just with the types of athletes we have on that end of the floor.”
With great recruits, though, ASU is gaining loads of expectations — something it hasn’t had under Hurley. And while that includes expectations to produce wins and gain accolades, it’s also managing the expectations of recruits who foresee themselves having a big role in the Devils’ offense.
“A lot of freshmen now that are highly regarded like Taeshon or Luguentz that have played against the top competition and have shown they can compete at the highest level against those types of players,” Hurley said. “But, it’s just getting everyone to buy in to the team and to talk about role identification as you start to figure out how everything is going to come together.”
With the influx of talented recruits, the Devils are going to be equipped with far more depth than they had last year. For a majority of the non-conference season, ASU’s roster had just seven healthy and eligible scholarship players.
Without many lineup questions, ASU cruised. When Ohio State transfer Mickey Mitchell came back against Kansas and freshman Kimani Lawrence returned during Pac-12 play, debates raged on about who should be getting minutes for ASU.
Those debates will only grow next year, and Hurley knows it’s his job to make the right call.
“There’s going to be a lot of responsibility on my part to manage that. Just figure out what the best combinations are,” Hurley said. “There’s going to be a lot of competition in practice which I think is going to elevate things and make us better.”
Last season, ASU had no shortage of leadership. The trio of senior guards commanded a room and drew a flurry of praise from the underclassmen all season long. This year, forward De’Quon Lake is the teams only senior.
Hurley says that ASU’s leaders will emerge from summer workouts, but he already has an idea on who that will be.
“Guys like Zylan Cheatham and Rob Edwards had a lot to do with our success last season even though they didn’t play because they pushing our guys in practice everyday,” he said. “Remy Martin -- people want to follow Remy because he just plays so hard and he’s just all over the court and he has great energy.”
Last year, Martin’s free-flowing hair bounced around as he caused havoc to opposing guards, energizing Wells Fargo Arena with his constant hustle plays and in your face defense.
Hurley, like he did with all of his players, gave Martin freedom. He took shots that freshman usually don’t take and solidified himself as someone ASU can build around.
“He gained my trust right away last year,” Hurley said of Martin. “Didn’t play like a freshman. He’s ready for it. He’s been working hard. We’ve only had a short time with him this week but it looked like he hadn’t missed a beat.”
Fans fell in love with Martin. Forward Romello White, though, didn’t draw the same praise. Twitter would jump on him with each ball that slipped through his fingers and as the season progressed his confidence, and stats, declined.
Hurley said he was fighting through a toe injury and noted that the length of the season may have got to him. Regardless, he knows what White needs to improve upon.
“I’d like to see him face-up a little more, be able to extend his range. He’s got a decent shooting touch,” Hurley said. “He needs to be consistent about developing that. His free throw shooting, it has to improve. And he’s just gotta take a bigger step.
“He’s going to have more responsibility now that we’ve got to replace a significant amount of scoring.”
Hurley was drafted 25 years ago by the Sacramento Kings and recalled going to buy the tie he wore on draft night at a mall two days before. He understands what the top prospects are feeling and what they’re going through.
Although Holder, Evans and Justice likely won’t get drafted, he thinks they’ll have great careers regardless.
“Those guys were always the underdog and they always overachieved. And along the way, they’ve passed a bunch of guys who were rated ahead of them and what not,” he said. “They’re going to fight for it because they did for me every time we played.”
As for who the Suns should take with the No. 1 pick, Hurley seemed torn between Deandre Ayton and Luka Doncic.
“What he was able to do against us, pretty special,” he said of Ayton. “It’s hard to knock anything The one thing I will say is I’ve watched a lot of film on Doncic over the last two weeks. The guys is unbelievable -- just his skill level, his shot making, his mind for the game, his basketball instincts.
“It would make me think, but certainly Ayton is a premier prospect as well.”