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ASU Basketball: Empire Classic Preview

Hoops are back

Arizona State v UCLA Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images

College basketball is back! The anticipation and excitement have led us to Wednesday, as the 2020-2021 season begins. For the No. 18 ranked Arizona State Sun Devils, its season begins at the Empire Classic.

Sunday night, it was announced the Sun Devils were withdrawing from the event due to contact tracing for COVID-19 as their opponent, No. 2 Baylor, received news that head coach Scott Drew tested positive for the virus.

However, on Monday, it was announced that Baylor was withdrawing from the event, and Arizona State was back in.

With the top-25 matchup against the Bears canceled, Bobby Hurley and his Sun Devils are now squaring off against the Rhode Island Rams. Let’s dive into the ASU roster that has the looks of a potential Pac-12 Champion.

Arizona State

The Sun devils finished last season 20-11 (11-7 in Pac-12), finishing third in the Pac-12 and look to take a step up this year with new weapons.

The Sun Devils have a loaded roster this season, led by senior point guard Remy Martin. Martin withdrew from the NBA Draft and returned to Tempe for his senior season.

Since then, he has been receiving national attention, being named to the Naismith Men’s Player of the Year watch list and an AP Preseason All-American.

Martin has also been named Preseason Pac-12 Player of the Year after averaging over 19 points per game last season.

The Sun Devils also have a dominant freshman duo with Josh Christopher and Marcus Bagley.

Christopher joins the Sun Devils as the highest ranked recruit in program history, possessing athleticism that pairs with his versatility as a scorer and defender. Bagley is a natural scorer, who can dominate from short, mid, and deep range.

The other depth at the guard position includes the reigning Pac-12 sixth Man of the Year with Alonzo Verge.

Alongside him is Jaelen House, who became an impact defender off the bench last year, and Holland Woods, who transferred from Portland State after averaging over 17 points and five assists per game last year. The Sun Devils have one of the deepest backcourts in the entire country.

Looking at the frontcourt, Kimani Lawrence, Jalen Graham, and Taeshon Cherry all stand out.

Lawrence started 23 games for Hurley last year. Graham became a big piece off the bench as a freshman and he looks to fill the void that was left by the transfer of Romello White to Ole Miss.

Finally, Taeshon Cherry, a former four-star recruit, looks to live up to his potential and be a big piece off the bench.

Rhode Island

The Rams finished last season 21-9 (13-5 in conference), finishing third in the Atlantic 10. The Rams are looking to make an NCAA Tournament appearance for the third time in five seasons.

The team is led by returning star and Naismith Men’s Player of the Year watch list candidate, Fatts Russell.

Russell received attention after being named to the 2019-20 postseason first team and the 2020-21 preseason first-team All-Atlantic 10. Last year, he averaged 18.8 points and 2.1 steals (second in Division I) per game.

The rest of the team has seen a lot of changes. Three players transferred after last season and two starters from last year graduated.

The Rams looked to the transfer portal and brought in eight new players, including Makhel and Makhi Mitchell from Maryland. These two big men will look to carve out a role in the frontcourt for the Rams.

They also grabbed former Charlotte guard, Malik Martin. He is the brother of former Rhode Island great Hassan Martin, who helped lead the Rams to their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 18 years in 2016-17.

Martin was named to Conference USA’s All-Defensive Team last year with his versatility to guard multiple positions on the court.

The Sun Devils will have a tough test to start the season, but depending on the results from Wednesday, they will meet up with either No. 3 Villanova or Boston College.

Villanova Wildcats

The Wildcats finished first in the Big East last year with a 26-10 record (13-5 in conference). This year, Jay Wright and Nova are title contenders again, looking for the third national title since 2016.

The lone starter to not return is Saddiq Bey, who recently was drafted by the Detroit Pistons. The team is returning four of its five starters, who are led by Naismith watch list nominee, Connor Gillespie.

Gillespie averaged 15.1 points and 4.5 assists last year, and he looks to take over the driver’s seat with the departure of Bey.

The other guard to look at is Justin Moore. Last year as a freshman, Moore average 11 points and three rebounds per game. He is the top three-point shooter for the Wildcats, shooting at a clip of 39 percent from deep in 2019.

Sophomore Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and senior Jermaine Samuels are returning to their starting jobs as well after combining to put up over 21 points and 15 rebounds per game as a duo.

The guy who I think will slide into the starting slot that Bey filled is Cole Swider. Swider made 15 starts last season, averaging six points and three rebounds per game.

Last year as a sophomore, he improved his shot and it shows in his seven-point increase on his field goal and three-point percentages.

Other depth players include Brandon Slater, Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, and sophomore guard Bryan Antoine.

Neither of these three average more than 12 minutes per game, but with Antoine returning to full health after a torn labrum his senior year of high school, he could see an uptick in minutes.

Eric Dixon is another guy to watch out for. The 6-foot-8, 260-pound forward can back down anyone in the post and is a physical defender who will play a rotational piece off the bench for the Wildcats.

Villanova looks dangerous this year and is a team to expect to make a run in March for another National Championship.

Boston College

The Eagles finished with a 14-17 record last season, including a 5-13 record in ACC conference play. Boston College is predicted to finish 14th in the conference this year.

However, there are a few pieces to watch out for on the Eagles roster, starting off with Jay Heath. As a freshman last year, Heath led the team in scoring at 13.1 points per game, shooting nearly 38 percent from deep.

Another player to look out for is Steffon Mitchell. The senior forward excels on the glass, averaging over eight rebounds per game, including three of those on the offensive side of the ball. He was big in creating second chance scoring opportunities.

Then add in Providence transfer Makai Ashton-Langford. Ashton-Langford is going to be a player that looks to improve the overall offensive efficiency that ranked near the bottom in the entire country, outside of the leading scorer in Heath.

This week could provide two tough tests to start out a very promising season for Hurley and his squad. The Sun Devils play tonight at 5 p.m. local time on ESPN.