Arizona State Sun Devils men’s basketball (19-8, 10-4) sits on the precipice of possibly the highest-stakes road trip of the Bobby Hurley era, with a pair of matchups against the second place UCLA Bruins (17-11, 10-5) and sixth place USC Trojans (19-9, 8-7) presenting a crucial opportunity for the first place Sun Devils to further entrench themselves atop the tumultuous Pac-12.
A regular season Pac-12 championship has eluded ASU in their 41 year history in the conference, with this year’s team representing likely the school’s best opportunity to capture the title since their 2009-10 season where the Sun Devils finished just one game behind the conference-leading Cal Bears. Despite their 22 wins, that 2010 team missed the NCAA tournament, a fate this year’s squad will likely avoid. Thanks to a seven game winning streak that includes victories against both the Bruins and Trojans, ASU appears squarely in the tournament picture according to most projections. For a group that has spent each of the last two Selection Sundays desperately awaiting their fate, ASU is eager to grasp any opportunity to better solidify their tournament chances.
“I just think it’s more enthusiasm, and just enjoying the work we’ve put in,” Hurley explained Tuesday on the team’s mindset heading into their LA road trip. “I didn’t get any sense that we’re satisfied.”
ASU’s opponent Thursday, UCLA, shares with the Sun Devils the distinction of the Pac-12’s hottest team, winning each of their last five contests and seven of their last eight. Their only loss over that stretch, a 18 point loss to these same Sun Devils just three weeks ago, came without sophomore forward Jalen Hill, who is second on the team with an average of 9.2 points per game while also pulling down a team-leading 6.9 rebounds per game.
Coming into Thursday’s matchup, UCLA sits at number 78 in NET rankings, just three spots away from a coveted Q1 opportunity for ASU. The idea that a victory over the once 8-9 Bruins could one day become a resume booster was for much of this season incomprehensible, and a testament to UCLA’s meteoric rise throughout the second half of the year.
“Hats off to what (UCLA coach) Mick Cronin has been able to do. Just when you look at the whole season — and I watched quite a few of their games earlier in the non-conference — to see where they’ve come from as a team is remarkable,” Hurley said. “As a coach, you just want to be playing well late in the year and be playing your best basketball, and that’s what that UCLA team looks like right now.”
USC, ASU’s Saturday opponent, has not favored as well recently as their cross-town rival, losing both of their last two games and five of their last seven. The Trojans came within just two points of taking down the Sun Devils when they faced off in Tempe three weeks ago, as a Remy Martin jumper with 19 seconds left gave ASU at the time their third straight win and USC their third straight loss.
USC continues to boast one of the conference’s most imposing frontline, anchored by projected lottery pick Onyeka Okongwu and senior Nick Rakocevic who have combined to average almost 28 points and a little more than 17 rebounds per game. This duo has helped USC dominate down low so far this season, as the Trojans are currently second in the conference in both total rebounds and blocks.
“We’ve just got to lock in on a few details,” Alonzo Verge Jr. explained. “We’re number 1, so we have to play with a chip on our shoulder. It’s a lot, but I think we’re capable of doing it and I think we’re going to come out of this thing 2-0.”
With the Pac-12 tournament just a few weeks away, ASU’s attitude remains the same as it did to start the season. While the infectiousness of winning has certainly raised some spirits, these Sun Devils remain poised and determined, equally confident in their abilities now as they were at this season’s lowest points. For Hurley, who admitted this week that at points this year his positivity has wavered, the impetus now lies on securing that elusive conference championship. As he works to prepare his team for the season’s final stretch, his belief in his group has never been higher.
“You want to be peaking at this time of year and playing your best basketball, so there’s a lot of hope, especially since single-elimination time is right around the corner,” Hurley said. “I think with us, it’s been impressive that we’ve been able to win a lot of close games in a variety of ways. So it’s nice to know that when you’re playing for your season real soon that these guys, they’ve been there before, and they’ve been challenged before, and they’ve had to figure out a way.”