Mailbag Monday is back for a late-January edition as the winter sports barrel toward conference tournaments. With such a great turnout in the comments, we will be publishing another Q&A next Monday with an emphasis on recruiting. Roll-over questions may be used next week.
Alas, we dig in. Some questions have been edited for clarity.
What’s the general consensus and expectations for baseball this year? I’ve heard vague things about Bloomquist hitting the portal hard, but don’t really know anything beyond that. How big of a step forward is expected and/or realistic in year 2? - TNSunDevil
Jack Johnson: A lot is made about the transfer portal’s impact in roster reconstruction in men’s basketball and football. Probably rightfully so, those names appear on national television and in the media more frequently. In the previous status quo, it took about at least one full recruiting cycle and maybe one more year after for a basketball coach to overhaul the roster, and in football, at least 3 years were often given an incoming coach to cultivate and develop “his guys.”
I would argue, though, that there has been perhaps no greater landscape shift to a college sport through the portal than baseball. Here’s why: In college baseball, players are recruited, and often verbally commit, almost the second they step on a high school campus. In past years, it could have taken Willie Bloomquist a solid 3-4 years to really change the makeup of this roster to reflect his desires.
Now? Bloomquist and his recruiting coordinator, Sam Peraza, are trying to fix what was an incomplete roster in 2022 in just one offseason. On a roster of 45, 33(!) of them will be newcomers in 2023. D1Baseball ranked the top 50 transfers this season earlier this month, and three of the top 25 will be in maroon and gold this spring. They are: Luke Keaschall (SS), Ross Dunn (LHP) and Nick McLain (OF), who is the brother of former Sun Devil Sean McLain.
Other guys, such as Drake Varnado (2B) and Timmy Manning (LHP) should be impact players as well, and both come from powerful programs (Arkansas and Florida State, respectively). Khristian Curtis (RHP) is from Texas A&M, and is a promising young player who could start several games this season.
What does this mean for their outlook? As usual for ASU baseball, it depends on the pitching. Last season, the Sun Devils were last in the conference in runs allowed (428). If these incoming transfers and a strong crop of incoming recruits can supplement an offense loaded with talent, expect an appearance in the regionals, with a chance to advance to the Supers for the first time since 2011.
ASU wrestling has a good problem to have at 125. Brandon Courtney, who finished 2nd in last year’s NCAA championships, is currently seeded No. 6 in the nation. But Richard Figueroa is just killing it, and is undefeated this season at 125; looks really dominant in most matches. In theory, the wrestler who wins on the practice mat gets the spot in the actual match, it’s always how it has been in lower level protocol, so is Figueroa just beating Courtney every week and getting the starts? Who gets to compete in the Pac-12 Championships to go to the NCAAs for ASU as I can’t imagine Courtney has wrestled enough matches to qualify. - ArizonaSon
Kevin Redfern: It will be very hard for Zeke Jones to take Richard Figueroa off the mat, especially with his currently-undefeated record (14-0). There is only one spot per-weight class, per-school.
As to why, I think you might have answered your own question while asking it. Figueroa has been the most electric wrestler in the rotation this year, and his energy and charisma are contagious. At Beauty and the Beast last week, I swear the applause that Figueroa induced threw-off some of the gymnasts. He had the people going wild.
The most logical answer is that he’s done everything right both in the weight room, and on the practice mat. When you don’t lose, you don’t sit out. I truly think that is the case.
Courtney is in his fifth full-season with ASU, not including his redshirt year as a sophomore.
What are the prospects for ASU joining a hockey conference? Are they in talks with any conference? Not having an arena was the immediate deal breaker before, so now that that’s out of the way it feels like it should be happening relatively soon. Whether it’s travel, schedule or chances of making the tournament, joining a conference seems like something the program has to do to try to take the next step. - TNSunDevil
JJ: For the first time in program history, ASU has done everything in their power to get in a conference.
Step 1: Field a competitive team. The Sun Devils did this in 2019, and were on pace to back that breakout season up with a second consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament if not for the pandemic cutting off the 2019-20 season.
Step 2: Build a functional arena. There’s a lot of quaint charm to Oceanside, but I’ve spent many a day there, it’s like pitching a lawn chair in a walk-in freezer. It was not a pleasant viewing experience, the ice was choppy, and the ceiling was not high enough to support major collegiate hockey. Mullett is first-rate, has all the amenities, and is good enough to field professional hockey. Off the 202 East, it is remarkably accessible, and also your first impression of the Sun Devil Athletics campus.
The dream scenario is for Sun Devil hockey to one day join the Big Ten, but even though the program is familiar with the conference, and vice versa, from their 2020-21 Big Ten schedule, this is unlikely. Though, Penn State did join the conference shortly after completing a new arena when the Big Ten began sponsoring ice hockey in 2013. At the time, the Nittany Lions journey from club to Division I looked very similar to ASU’s.
That leaves us with the NCHC, home to some of the top college hockey programs west of Big Ten country. ASU has gotten much more familiar with these programs in the past two seasons, highlighted by that spectacular matchup with North Dakota in Las Vegas. Head coach Greg Powers has a stated goal of getting the Sun Devils into a major conference, and with the rapid ascension of the program in the past half-decade, it seems like that next step should be an achievable one in the near future.
How do coaches and players, in general, feel about the NIL system? Is it likely to undermine team morale? Consider how will players feel about teammates when a handful are making a nice or more amount of money while many are not making a cent? Do coaches hold those making bucks to higher standards? Do they become favored in other ways, interviews, press attention, even more perks? - Lisa A.
JJ: There is still a lot we don’t know about the inner-machinations of the NIL system, Lisa. For your question about team morale: A lot has been made about how the transfer portal is impacting locker room and clubhouse dynamics, and I’m sure it is to some degree. If you have ever moved in with new roommates or transferred jobs, there is just an inherent level of awkwardness to it you have to navigate.
Two or three decades ago, the transfer portal and NIL would probably be a lot more disruptive to team dynamics, but these players today have been transferring in and out of AAU, travel ball, and football-factory high schools since before they could drive, it’s nothing new to them anymore.
If players are getting more attention because of NIL deals (which I haven’t personally seen at ASU but could depend largely on the school’s to-this-point lackluster NIL collective), it is more of a retroactive thing than a proactive thing. The players getting paid the most attention and highest dollars are the 5-star recruits who, through their past production, have earned the right to be the highest paid.
Even before NIL, players that would have commanded high dollar figures received enticing perks to commit to campus. Texas virtually laid out the red carpet for Arch Manning to commit last summer, and spent $280,000 just to court him.
Coaches hold those players to higher standards irregardless of the money because they are the players expected to make the biggest impact on the team’s success. If there’s an issue with that between teammates, then we’re getting into a larger debate on economics that surpasses this platform.
Of course, no player, coach, or administrator has to feel good about the ongoing Jaden Rashada saga. For that to blow up as it did, especially with the incredulously high price tag for a guy who was a fringe 5-star recruit, makes an already uncertain, opaque, and non-linear system more troubling.
Does the Comcast overpayment issue (scandal?) affect Crow? It doesn’t look good but it seems this story is being overblown. What will happen as a result of this? - Troll S.
KR: Last week, Jon Wilner of The Mercury News reported that the conference fired two executives — CFO Brent Willman and Pac-12 Networks president Mark Shuken — for failing to report years of overpayments from Comcast dating back to 2016.
Will this impact the employment status of any of the university presidents? It is highly unlikely. One scenario that could happen is that Comcast could hold its final payments to the conference over the span of the last year-plus of their contract that ends in mid-2024. In this case, Pac-12 schools could miss out on $2 million to $5 million.
It’s also worth noting that Wilner reported Shuken’s position will not be filled, a sign that the Pac-12 Networks could be scaling down with its move from San Francisco to the East Bay.
How confident should Sun Devil fans be that Israel Carter is actually going to sign instead of flipping to someplace else? And with all the incoming defensive commits, what scheme will be utilized? Who is going to make up the starting defensive unit? - DevilForce1
KR: There is no doubt that Israel Carter’s momentum towards signing at ASU has slowed significantly, but at the same time, no other school has separated itself as much as ASU has in Carter’s recruiting. He is still currently verbally committed to ASU. However, that tag carries a lot less weight than it did five years ago.
He reportedly likes Kenny Dillingham. He’s vocalized that he is not afraid to sit out a year behind a veteran. But as soon as those scenarios presented themselves, Carter decided to delay his initial plans to sign early at ASU. Rumors surrounding four-star former Florida-signee Jaden Rashada definitely complicate things too.
He posted on Twitter in late-December that South Florida gave him an offer, and he was seen throwing for USF staff as recently as January 25th — five days ago. The Bulls appear to be the immediate threat.
Had a great time throwing for South Florida yesterday with my YODA @ArmedDangerQBS ! Signing day is almost here !! @CoachGolesh @CoachJGordo @GregBiggins @adamgorney @USFFootball pic.twitter.com/cKL97bo7jB— Israel Carter (@Isr8ael) January 25, 2023
Carter will put pen to paper and a cap on his head on Wednesday during National Signing Day.
As for the defense, Kenny Dillingham said that defensive coordinator Brian Ward will call plays, and they will adopt his Washington State defensive-scheme that helped the Cougars achieve the top-ranked defense in the Pac-12. With all the turnover, your guess at the starting lineup is as good as mine. Ro Torrence, Ed Woods, Jordan Clark, BJ Green II and Anthonie Cooper headline the returning starters from last season. We will get our best look during the Spring Game, which is generating some buzz, courtesy of Dillingham.
If you were AD and had Crow’s blessing, would you rather have Kenny Dillingham or Deion Sanders as your head coach? - Zoon P.
KR: Leave it to Zoon to pour the gasoline on the fire. I’ll bite. Given Dillingham’s Arizona-background, I’d give him the edge over Coach Prime. We’ve seen him develop star-talent at the highest level of the game. Sanders did a phenomenal job at Jackson State. We will see if he can scale it up to Power-Five football.
They do share the constant of inheriting abysmal rosters following catastrophic seasons for their respective programs. This will be a fun case study to consistently monitor.