ASU’s second straight NCAA Tournament appearance filled with entertaining storylines

Arizona State freshman Taeshon Cherry helped land the men’s basketball team into its second straight NCAA Tournament, where it will face St. John’s University. (Photo by John Mendonza/Cronkite News)

TEMPE — Since the NCAA Tournament selection committee seems to enjoy finding storylines when arranging early matchups, Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley had an inkling that the Sun Devils were about to be included in the March Madness plot.

ASU was the next to last team selected to the 68-team field and will open tournament play against St. John’s in a play-in game Wednesday in Dayton, Ohio.

The Red Storm, which lost to ASU last season in a regular-season game, 82-70, received the 68th and final bid. Tipoff is at 6:10 p.m. Arizona time and the game will be televised on TruTV.

If the Sun Devils, who are seeded 11th in the West Region, beat the Red Storm, they would advance to play sixth-seeded Buffalo, where Hurley coached for three seasons before arriving in Tempe.

“I just had a feeling once we saw Buffalo at the six, knowing it was going to be an 11 next, ‘OK, I see what’s happening here.’ ” Hurley said. “I kind of knew at that point that we were going to be in, but it took a little while, obviously.

“We all were very excited. It’s an honor to play in the NCAA tournament.”

This is the first time since 1981 that ASU is the only Arizona school to qualify for the tournament. And it is the first time since 1980 and 1981 that the Sun Devils have reached the Big Dance in back-to-back seasons.

That was something Hurley drove home to his team.

“We put banners up in our practice facility of all NCAA Tournament appearances,” he said. “You have to look a long way back to see two appearances (in a row) on that banner. So, I take a lot of pride in that, and we’re looking to continue to build on it.”

ASU hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 2009, when the Sun Devils defeated Temple in a first-round game during James Harden’s sophomore season. They lost to Syracuse in the second round.

Last season, Hurley faced off against legendary Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim in the First Four, losing 60-56. This time around, he coaches against St. John’s legend Chris Mullin.

“They’re very much a perimeter oriented team, a very free-flowing team and a team that could go on runs because they could score in volume – very, very explosive offensive team,” Hurley said of the Red Storm. “They got a lot of tough kids, and they could really go off the dribble. Our defense is going to have our hands full dealing with those guys.”

ASU was a faster-paced team last season, often relying on lineups with three and even four guards. But this season, the Sun Devils are built around physicality and defensive versatility with sophomore playmaker Remy Martin triggering the offense.

“I think we have a lot of winners in the locker room, and we’re more athletic and have more ability to score in the paint than we could last year,” Hurley said. “The guards were terrific. We just couldn’t get the balance that we now have at both ends of the floor because (we’re) bigger and more athletic.”

Martin suffered a groin strain early in ASU’s Pac-12 Tournament loss to Oregon that limited him for the remainder of the game, but Hurley hopes to have him back near full strength in Dayton.

“Now we have a chance to get Remy healthy so that we have one of our best players functioning at a level, physically, that we need him to,” Hurley said. “Because that hurt us in the Oregon game — just having Remy Martin at like 50 or 60 percent. So, we’re hoping we can get him there. He’s a key part of what we do.”

Hurley said the quality of opponents ASU faced this season prepared them for a tournament atmosphere. If the Sun Devils lose Wednesday, he said it won’t be because of a lack of experience under pressure.

“I told the guys that we don’t want this to be our last practice here in Tempe of the season,” Hurley said. “We want to go out and win some games and get back and be here next week practicing, getting ready for the following week.”

Hurley said if any team wants to knock ASU out of the tournament, they would have to rip out the heart of the Sun Devils.

“We’re going to go to Dayton, and we’re going to pack our bags and, hopefully, we’re going to Tulsa next,” Hurley said.

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