ASU basketball will begin Pac-12 tournament play Thursday in rare territory; squarely in the NCAA tournament field. After spending the past two Selection Sundays nervously awaiting their tournament faith, the Sun Devils should feel much more confident this year thanks to a regular season from the Sun Devils that featured a handful of impressive wins and an absence of cringeworthy losses.
“I just feel like this is as good as I’ve felt going into the Pac-12 Tournament since I’ve been here,” coach Bobby Hurley said Monday. “We’ve won a lot of big games in a very good conference. To be tied for third in this league with 11 wins says a lot about our body of work and what we’ve done this year and to win 20 games. So we’ve done a lot of great things to put us in excellent position for the NCAA Tournament.”
The strength of ASU’s resume lies in their undefeated record against quad three and quad four opponents. It’s a relative rarity for teams with similar NET rankings to ASU, as the Sun Devils are sandwiched in-between the fifty-first ranked Cincinnati Bearcats (four Q3 losses) and the fifty third ranked Alabama Crimson Tide (three Q4 losses). In fact, they are just one of eight teams between NET rankings 25 and 58 to be undefeated in Q3 and Q4 matchups.
The Sun Devils are also aided by a respectable record in Q1 and Q2 games, going 5-8 in Q1 and 4-3 in Q2 for a combined record of 9-11. ASU’s best win is a February 20th takedown of the then 14th ranked Oregon Ducks, defeating the Pac-12 regular season champ Ducks 77-72 thanks in large part to the 50 combined points from guards Alonzo Verge Jr and Rob Edwards. That victory is followed closely in quality by ASU’s January 25th comeback win over the then 22nd ranked Arizona Wildcats, where the Sun Devils fought back from a 22 point deficit to triumph over the Wildcats. Those two victories star alongside ASU road successes at Stanford, Washington and Oregon State to round out the Sun Devils Q1 wins.
ASU’s four Q2 wins place them comfortably within the range of fellow likely tournament teams. These victories include a February 8th win over USC, a November 23rd takedown of St. John’s, a win at San Francisco on December 3rd, and a February 23rd victory over Oregon State. Add in the fact that the Sun Devil’s February 6th home win against UCLA, currently ranked number 76 in the NET, could easily become a Q2 victory by Selection Sunday with just a one spot improvement in the NET rankings from the Bruins, and ASU should feel content with their standing against Q2 teams.
The two most damaging games for ASU’s tournament chances both came to the pair of Washington schools, albeit on different weekends. The first was on January 29th, when the Sun Devils lost 67-65 on a last second shot to the Washington State Cougars. The Cougars, who also serve as ASU’s opponent in their opening game of the Pac-12 tournament, finished in 11th place in the Pac-12 and currently own a NET ranking of 120.
ASU’s other worrisome defeat came on the final weekend of the regular season, when the Sun Devils blew a 12 point second half lead to the Washington Huskies before ultimately falling 90-83. Despite managing just five conference wins, 15 wins overall, and a last place finish in the Pac-12, NET rankings still view the Huskies relatively favorably, slotting them just three spots behind ASU at 55.
All of this combines for a resume most experts confidently predict is good enough to earn an at-large bid should ASU fail in its pursuit of a Pac-12 tournament championship. The bracket matrix, which pulls data from many of the most respected bracket predictors or “bracketologists” on the internet has ASU present in 147 of a possible 156 brackets with an average seed of 9.98. Teamrankings.com gives the Sun Devils an 87.7% chance of making the NCAA tournament, with an 80% chance of receiving an at-large bid.
Comparisons of ASU’s resume with resumes of past teams also suggest the Sun Devils will be dancing in March, as each of the ten resumes most similar to that of the Sun Devils over the past ten years earned an at-large bid according to barttorvik.com. Those comparable resumes don’t exactly predict encouraging outcomes for ASU though, as nine of those ten teams didn’t escape the tournament’s first weekend. The lone exception was a 2008 Villanova team, the fifth most similar resume according to barttorvik.com, that entered as a twelve seed before trouncing the fifth seeded Clemson Tigers in the round of 64 and the thirteenth seeded Siena Saints in the round of 32 before ultimately falling to the eventual national champion Kansas Jayhawks.
Overall, ASU looks to be in strong shape to earn their third straight NCAA tournament appearance. While tacking on a few quality wins in the Pac-12 tournament wouldn’t hurt, the Sun Devils should be safely in the field regardless of the outcome of their trip to Las Vegas.