TULSA, Okla. – With just more than two minutes remaining in the game, Arizona State forward Zylan Cheatham fouled out and walked off the court to a standing ovation from the few Sun Devil fans in attendance.
Although Cheatham’s time in ASU has ended, his impact on the program remains.
“The legacy of a guy like Zylan Cheatham is immeasurable for what it’s going to mean for us moving forward as a program,” said ASU coach Bobby Hurley, whose team lost to sixth-seeded Buffalo 91-74 Friday in the NCAA Tournament’s first round.
In a game where Arizona State struggled to get its offense going, Cheatham stood as the team’s lone beam of stability. The Sun Devils shot just 3 of 22 from the three-point line and freshman standout Luguentz Dort finished the game with only 12 points on 4-for-12 shooting and was 1 of 7 from three.
Cheatham, in turn, delivered another well-rounded effort that has come to be expected from the senior. He led the team in scoring with 22 points on an efficient 8-of-12 shooting, and added eight rebounds and three assists, both team highs.
“You know, he’s not afraid of any big moment,” Hurley said. “He’s unselfish. … I’m surprised there’s a box score in front of him right now because he’s not the guy to go look for the box score, how many shot attempts he’s had. He’s a great person.”
This tournament, on a national stage, this was the moment Cheatham waited for all last season.
Last year, when Arizona State made it into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014, Cheatham watched from afar. As a transfer student, he sat out – alongside fellow transfer Rob Edwards – and longed to play with his teammates in the Big Dance.
The Phoenix native, who had a stellar high school basketball career at South Mountain High School, transferred from San Diego State University to return to his home state and play for the Sun Devils.
The emotional journey of transferring schools, preparing for life after college and playing on the biggest stage in college basketball, culminated for him in the tournament this year.
The path to this point was far from easy. In addition to expectations from this season – his first and only playing with Arizona State – student-athlete demands and the pressures and uncertainties of life after his college ball, Cheatham was faced with the loss of his brother.
In December, Wanyaa Steward was shot and killed in Tempe, a loss that still sits with Cheatham now, just months after his brother’s death.
“To deal with everything that he’s gone through in his personal life this season and to be able to be there for his teammates and be that type of player, he’s got the makeup that’s off the charts,” Hurley said.
In addition to a versatile skill set and his 6-foot-8 frame built for basketball, Cheatham brought character, leadership and work ethic that he instilled in his younger teammates in his limited time with the team, coaches say.
“I hope my guys … kind of realize the impact that I had on them as far as competing every day, bringing it every day, being a positive leader, just being a positive person and trying to be a role model and better myself,” Cheatham said.
One of those younger players, freshman forward Taeshon Cherry, roomed with Cheatham when the team traveled and won’t soon forget the impact he had on the team.
“Funny, compassionate, he’s everything in the book,” Cherry said. “He has a lot of emotions and you can see that on the court. He always keeps us together, he’s the glue, he’s the glue to our puzzle and we’re going to miss him a lot.”
Cheatham shared some of that emotion after the game when he discussed the feeling of losing at this point in the season after finally making it to the tournament his senior year.
“It hurts unbelievably,” Cheatham said. “So often, fans and people view us as – they think we’re just superhumans or something as opposed to actual basketball players and humans that have emotions, that go through things. If you could think of anything that you’ve worked your whole entire life for – and think about how it would feel to have that taken away instantly – that’s pretty much the best comparison I can give to you.”
As much as it hurts to lose after making it so far as a team, player and person, Cheatham has the potential to be selected in this year’s NBA Draft, and he hopes his tournament exposure serves as a silver lining and made lasting impressions on NBA front offices.
“I hope teams see the versatility I displayed, playing multiple positions, guarding multiple positions,” Cheatham said. “The versatility aspect of that, some of the stuff I was able to do off the dribble, posting, just exploiting mismatches. And it seems like that’s what the NBA game is now and I just hope that I was able to impact some teams.”
With Arizona State’s season over and Cheatham’s final game as a Sun Devil in the books, his impact on the program in the short time he was a part of it remains unquestioned.
“But as far as the mark I’ve left on this program, I mean, I hope my fans and I hope the city remembers me in a positive light,” Cheatham said. “I think we’re going in the right direction. I think we’ve taken another step in the right direction as far as from last year to this year.
“So, to leave the program in the hands of guys like Remy (Martin), Romello (White), Taeshon, the list goes on and on. I know the future is extremely bright and I know this isn’t the end of Arizona State basketball.”
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