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ASU Basketball: Sun Devils building off season opener, looking forward

Building off the China trip

NCAA Basketball: California at Arizona State Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

ASU basketball returned home from their trip to China this week following a disappointing 81-71 loss to the now 25th ranked Colorado Buffaloes. The defeat revealed a number of early concerns for the Sun Devils, both expected and unexpected, while highlighting the strides certain players made throughout the offseason.

As ASU looks to regroup and refocus ahead of their home opener, head coach Bobby Hurley looks to build off the team’s unique start to the season.

“I thought that, all things considered, playing a team of the talent and the experience of Colorado, and then missing key guys and having to play differently, that everyone accounted pretty well for themselves,” Hurley said.

The “key guys” Hurley refers to were redshirt junior forward Romello White and sophomore forward Taeshon Cherry, both of whom were marked ineligible in the lead-up to Friday’s contest.

The specific nature of White and Cherry’s transgressions remain unknown, but Hurley was quick to clarify that the infractions were committed before the team boarded their flight to Shanghai. The general severity of the violations also remains unclear, as Hurley would not confirm if White or Cherry would be active for Thursday’s opener until hours before tip-off.

Their absences though, created an opportunity for freshman forward Jalen Graham, who performed admirably in his first collegiate game, racking up six points, three assists and an impressive five blocks.

The freshman’s advanced defensive acumen was obvious from the opening tip, as the Mountain Pointe grad displayed active hands and quick feet around the rim while anchoring the Sun Devil defense.

“He’s a high ceiling player that’s going to continue to get better as he gets stronger, learns, and just gets more experience,” Hurley said of Graham. “But he already showed us, and I think his teammates, that we can count on him, and he’s a guy who can be productive in the front court.”

Graham’s strong play down low allowed Hurley to experiment with a number of non-traditional lineup combinations throughout Friday’s contest. It began with ASU’s opening lineup, as Hurley sent out the trio of junior Remy Martin, junior Alonzo Verge Jr., and redshirt senior Rob Edwards, along with junior forward Kimani Lawrence and Graham.

Conventional wisdom would dictate that Martin, Verge Jr. and Edwards, none of whom stand taller than 6-foot-5, would be too small to play together, yet Hurley valued the groups collective playmaking and ball-handling abilities over any possible defensive deficiencies.

Hurley’s guard heavy groups did not stop there, as ASU spent considerable time with 6’7 sophomore guard Elias Valtonen as the lineup’s nominal “big man,” trotting out units where he was flanked by Martin, Verge Jr., Edwards, and freshman guard Jaelen House.

These lineups figure to be a constant in the Sun Devil rotation this season, as Hurley tries to give his talented guards as many minutes together as possible. Led by Martin, the team boasts a strong group of playmakers who are each independently capable of orchestrating the offense at any given time.

While the group ranges in their specific abilities, they all possess the relentless tenacity and a quick first step necessary to thrive in Hurley’s fast paced system.

“The guard play is amazing man,” Martin commented. “The thing about us, all of us can go off the dribble, kind of like (my) first year here. Guarding us should be pretty hard.”

As ASU prepares for the rest of their non-conference schedule, Hurley works to evaluate a team that currently faces more questions than answers. With an illuminating China trip now in the books, Hurley aims to build off the lessons learned overseas as the Sun Devils look to compete in the much-improved Pac-12.

“Having to really scrap some of your main ideas of what you thought your team would be based around, to have to go in entirely in an different direction on short notice, and to see the guys respond to that, I thought was pretty good,” Hurley said.