ARIZONA STATE BASKETBALL
Full-Length featured article on Arizona State Basketball
Previously published on 12-15-17
What shouldn’t come as a surprise is the fact that, after the first six weeks of the 2017-2018 NCAA men’s basketball season, a team from the state of Arizona is currently ranked as one of the top five teams in the nation.
After all, the University of Arizona captured the Pac-10/Pac-12 regular season championship in four of the last five seasons, and won the conference tournament twice in the last three years. Head coach Sean Miller is a three-time Pac-12 coach of the year, and just so happens to have succeeded Hall of Fame coach Lute Olsen. The Wildcats have been referred to as “Point Guard U” by some, given the rich history of players that the school has produced at the position, like Steve Kerr, Damon Stoudamire, Khalid Reeves, Mike Bibby, Jason Terry, and Gilbert Arenas.
Now here’s the fun part: the Wildcats aren’t actually the Arizona school ranked in the top five this year. In fact, after starting out the season as the second-ranked team in the nation, the Wildcats are ranked #23 in the nation, after briefly dropping out of the AP Top 25.
And the team that’s taken their place in the top five? That would be none other than their cross-town rival: the Arizona State University Sun Devils.
You know, that same Arizona State basketball program that’s had three NCAA tournament appearances in the past 20 years, finished in the bottom half of the Pac-12 rankings four times in the past six years, and has never won a Pac-10 championship.
Not even the most talented of basketball prophets could have foreseen that happening. The national media projected the Sun Devils to again finish somewhere in the bottom half of the Pac-12 conference; in fact, some preseason media polls had them projected as finishing 11th among 12 teams this year. Between all the talented players and teams in the Pac-12 conference, most college basketball pundits were rather bearish on how the Sun Devils would fare this season.
Even head coach Bobby Hurley, the famous All-American who won back-to-back national championships at Duke University, felt that it would take some time before the program entered the national conversation. This is coming from a guy who, in his first two years as a college basketball head coach, took the University of Buffalo Bulls program to its first two NCAA Tournament appearances in school history.
And yet, halfway through December of the 2017-2018 season, the Arizona State Sun Devils are not only the fifth-ranked team in the nation and the biggest “Cinderella” story in all of college basketball, but also an increasingly trendy answer to the question of: “who is the best college basketball team in the country right now?”
So how is any of this even possible?
BLAZING HOT START
It all starts with a lineup featuring three senior guards whose games and skills complement each other superbly. In today’s one-and-done era of basketball, we tend to forget just how valuable it is to have that veteran experience and savvy from your guards.
Guard Tra Holder is one of the “elder statesman” among this group of Sun Devils, and has transformed from an unheralded recruit (only a three-star prospect, per ESPN and Rivals) to an early potential Naismith College Player of the Year candidate.
Holder leads the team in points per game (21.2) and three-point shooting (46.3%), and is tied for the team lead in assists per game (5.2). More importantly: he’s played his best this season, when the lights shined their brightest. In Arizona State’s win against (then) 15th-ranked Xavier University, Allen dropped 40 points, four assists, and four rebounds. In the Sun Devils win against the University of Kansas Jayhawks, Holder had 29 points and seven assists, and kept the team posed as the Jayhawks kept trying to feed off the energy in Allen Fieldhouse and rally themselves back into the game.
Holder’s tag-team partner in the Sun Devils’ back-court is Shannon Evans, a senior who followed Hurley from Buffalo. While Evans is more of the facilitator compared to Holder, the former has also shot the ball extremely well this season, shooting a career high 44.2% from the field, including 44.6% from behind the three-point line. He added 22 points with five assists in the win against Kansas, and was named the Pac-12 Men’s Basketball Player of the Week thanks to those efforts. While the combination of Holder and Evans might not be garner the same spotlight it would have if they played for other programs, it’s just a matter of time before people truly realize just how smart and dependably these guys have played this year.
Fellow senior guard Kodi Justice has been the third musketeer, of sorts, playing as the guard on the wing position, alongside Holder and Evans. And as such a position would demand, he provides exactly what you’d expect from a veteran wing: a jolt of energy off the bench, the “whatever you need” contributions to his team, and the calming presence in the midst of a tight game. Justice, by his own admission, fashions himself as simply “a basketball player.”
That’s why you might see him diving for loose balls, locking up an opposing player, and hitting clutch shots, sometimes all in the same game. Of course, when the time calls for it, he’s not afraid to put on the cape and be the hero for the team as well; in Arizona State’s win over Kansas State, Justice scored a career-high 28 points on 9-of-10 shooting, including all four of his 3-point tries and all five of his second-half shots.
GREAT MIX OF YOUNG AND OLD TALENT
But in addition to those three guys, what really makes Arizona State basketball so interesting this year is the influx of young talent that they not only already have, but will soon be integrating into their current lineup. In other words: the surprise team that’s ascended to #5 in the national rankings has more than sufficient reason to believe they’ll be even better as the season goes on.
It starts with red-shirt freshman forward Romello White, who’s scoring 16 points per game (third highest on the team) while leading the Sun Devils with nine rebounds per game. But the stats don’t tell anything near the whole story with White. After sitting out all of last year as an academic red-shirt, the six-foot-eight forward is an intriguing combination of basketball skills and athleticism; teammate Evans has called White a “dog,” while Holder has called him a “monster,’’ because of the energy and the intensity he brings when he steps out on the court. The scary part is: he’s still getting in game shape, after sitting out parts of Arizona State’s exhibition season due to a violation of team rules.
Sophomore Mickey Mitchell must sit out the season’s first eight games because he was a mid-year transfer, but once he’s back into the lineup, he could very well challenge for a starting position on this Sun Devils group. The six-foot-seven forward is an underrated athlete, a good-enough shooter, but an even better passer. More importantly, he can be another enforcer on the court, in addition to White, giving Hurley a lethal combination of muscle and skill in potential lineups.
True freshman Remy Martin, a consensus top-100 recruit coming out of high school who ended up choosing Arizona State over UCLA, is already paying dividends as a reserve guard (with the luxury of soaking up as much knowledge from the wealth of experience ahead of him). In the Sun Devils’ win against Xavier, he scored 13 points, and showed off the explosive and aggressive mentality he was known for, coming out of high school. The six-foot guard could be a fascinating spark-plug off the bench, given his combination of mid-range shooting skills and lateral quickness when defending opposing players.
HERE TO STAY
With all that experience and depth, there just doesn’t seem to be any reason to think that this start isn’t simply a flash in the pan. There are plenty of good reasons that they’ve ascended to the highest-ever ranking the program has ever had. Hurley has his team playing confidently and entertainingly; they’re smart, they’re fast, and they play loose. Hurley is thrilled with the combination of athletes, competitors, and leaders he’s assembled on this team.
More importantly, the Sun Devils’ wins against Xavier (ranked #10 in the country) and Kansas (ranked #13 in the nation) will look better and better as the season wears on; both of those wins will work greatly in their favor when the NCAA Tournament selection committee reviews their candidacy to make their first trip back to the tournament in four years. In fact, the only thing that Sun Devils fans really have to worry about, given the current circumstances, is just how long they’ll get to enjoy Hurley’s leadership in Tempe. The fans and alumni have galvanized around Hurley, especially in light of the questionable hire by the football program. Hurley brings name recognition, pedigree, and most importantly, results.
But as we mentioned at the start: the Sun Devils still live in the Wildcats’ shadow in the state of Arizona. How long will Hurley remain content with that, especially if – or when – some of the superpowers of college basketball come calling? After all, it might not be that long before Mike Krzyzewski steps down as the head coach at Duke University, Hurley’s alma mater.
But those are all questions for the future. What’s important right now is Hurley’s job at hand, and the players who are stealing away the spotlight from that other Arizona school, as well as the rest of the Pac-12 conference. Arizona State basketball is here to stay.
CLICK HERE TO READ OUR ENTIRE NCAA TOURNAMENT PREVIEW
(In affiliation with Amazon)