Updated: ASU will face Rhode Island instead of Baylor, according to Empire Classic officials, following the Baylor coach’s disclosure of a COVID-19 diagnosis.
LOS ANGELES – Eight months ago, Remy Martin threw his name into the hat that is the NBA Draft, leaving Arizona State basketball without its starting point guard. Two weeks after losing the poster child of “Guard U,” starting center Romello White followed Martin by declaring for the 2020 draft.
But the fog of uncertainty covering the Sun Devils’ future soon was dispelled by an unexpected source: guard Josh Christopher.
Just 12 days after the Sun Devils lost their starting big man, the five-star recruit shocked the college basketball world by choosing Arizona State over Michigan, Missouri, Southern Cal and UCLA. The All-American guard was ranked No. 11 in the nation by ESPN and is ASU basketball’s highest rated recruit ever.
The Sun Devils received more good news Aug. 2 when Martin withdrew from the NBA Draft. Suddenly, ASU looked dangerous.
The news was icing on the Sun Devil cake that was baked in July 2019, when small forward Marcus Bagley, the younger brother of Sacramento Kings’ forward Marvin Bagley, officially committed to ASU, giving coach Bobby Hurley a sharpshooting four-star recruit.
After one of the biggest recruiting hauls in Sun Devil sports history, ASU is ranked No. 18 in the season’s first AP poll.
“Those two individuals (Christopher and Bagley) are some of the best freshmen I have ever played with,” Martin told reporters Nov. 12 during Pac-12 media day. “Their grit, their desire to win, their desire to just play basketball is at an all time high.”
In addition to securing young talent, the Devils will return seniors Alonzo Verge, the Pac-12 Sixth Man of the Year; Holland Woods, a prolific scorer who transferred from Portland State; and forward Kimani Lawrence.
The returning seniors will be an integral part in this young team’s success, and will face the test Nov. 25 when ASU opens the season against Rhode Island.
The Sun Devils were originally slated to play No. 2 Baylor, but Coach Scott Drew tweeted about testing positive for COVID-19 on Sunday and the team announced Monday that they won’t play in the 2020 Empire Classic in Uncasville, Connecticut.
But the Sun Devils feel ready for the season.
“This is why I came here,” Christopher told a news conference Monday. “A lot of times schools get early preseason games and they might play a mid-major or a low-major to get started. Nah, let’s go ahead and see what we’re made of off the rip.”
One thing Arizona State is not made of is height. The Suns Devils do not have a true center on their roster, and the projected starting five includes just two players taller than 6 foot 5: Bagley and Jalen Graham.
“Being a smaller team, it’s going to have to be a group effort,” Bagley told reporters Thursday. “All of us have to crash the boards. That’s something I have been working on. Boxing out, finding the ball when it comes off the rim. If we do that and handle business defensively, we’ll be a tough team to beat.”
Lack of height hasn’t slowed ASU down in the past. Hurley’s original “Guard U” team in 2017, with Martin, Tra Holder and Shannon Evans, knocked off No. 2 Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence.
They upset Kansas again in Tempe in 2018, this time when the Jayhawks were ranked No. 1. So playing top 5 teams early in their schedule is nothing new for ASU, as they will have the opportunity to play No. 3 Villanova with a win against Rhode Island on Wednesday.
But in terms of preparation, 2020 is much different from those years. The Devils currently have nine games on the slate until January, seven being out of conference, but it’s unclear whether that schedule will hold in light of the pandemic. No team in Division I has been able to play a single exhibition game before the first real tipoff.
Intrasquad scrimmages have been the key, Hurley said.
“We’re going to be facing opponents right out of the gate that have really high-end talent and are projected to be some of the best teams in the country,” Hurley said during Pac-12 media day. “This year, the crazy year that it is, we don’t have either the exhibition or the closed scrimmage to have film to review. We’re going to have two more of these (scrimmages) prior to our first game so that we continue to fix whatever issues we have as best as we can.”
Preparation may be the deciding factor come Wednesday night’s game against Rhode Island and the Devils are confident the scrimmages have shown what they can do in-game. If the mentality shown in scrimmage translates to the real season, ASU fans can expect the Devils to share the ball a ton.
“Man, that basketball will make its way from one corner to the other then back to the other again,” Christopher said. “Of course there’s guys that can go and get their own bucket, and we understand that. I had a spurt in our scrimmage today where I struggled a bit, but if I’m not scoring the basketball I can be dishing off to somebody else. Honestly, it’s going to help all of us show what we can do and show that we can do a variety of things.”
Wednesday’s game against Rhode Island will be telecast at 7 p.m. Arizona time on ESPN. The winner will face either No. 3 Villanova or Boston College.