TEMPE – This was supposed to be Arizona State’s year. But so far, it sure hasn’t gone that way.
After years of early-season runs leading to late-season disappointments and early March Madness exits, the 2020-21 basketball season was supposed to be different. A backcourt of top recruit Josh Christopher and returning senior Remy Martin was supposed to lead the Sun Devils straight through the Pac-12 and into their first legitimate NCAA tournament run since 1975.
Instead, the team enters the second half of January as a loser of four straight with a 4-6 record overall. It has been battered and bruised the whole way, battling injuries as well as game postponements. ASU has already missed four conference games due to COVID-19 issues within either its program or the opponents.
Coach Bobby Hurley acknowledges the tough hand his team has been dealt. But he isn’t making any excuses – it’s on the players and staff to step up.
“Everyone’s been beaten up this year,” Hurley said in a Zoom press conference prior to the team’s Saturday loss to Oregon State. “I still believe that there’s a chance we could rally and get this thing going again. I think we have some nice pieces that could do that, and guys that have proven they could do it. Now it’s just a matter of knowing we have seven or eight weeks left here, and do we want to go all in and see what we could really make out of this season.”
The team had its share of struggles in the early weeks of the season, with double-digit losses to San Diego State and UTEP sandwiching a narrow one-point victory over Grand Canyon University. But before they could get into any kind of rhythm, the Sun Devils were forced into a three-week hiatus due to COVID-19 protocol.
ASU returned to action on Jan. 7 against preseason Pac-12 favorite UCLA. Shorthanded, missing Martin (grandfather’s funeral), forwards Jalen Graham (mononucleosis) and Taeshon Cherry and guard Jaelen House (non-injury, non-disciplinary), the Sun Devils battled into overtime but fell short. Later that week, still missing those four key contributors, they dropped another close game to USC, another top Pac-12 contender.
A trip to Oregon was scheduled for the next week, but positive cases within the University of Oregon program caused their Thursday game to be postponed. Hurley said he didn’t find out about the cancellation until late Tuesday morning.
The team shifted gears and prepared for Oregon State on Saturday. Martin and House returned, but the frontcourt was still shorthanded and ASU lost another one-point heartbreaker.
During that long stretch, the team’s struggles varied. They’ve been outrebounded in all but one game this year, the season opener against Rhode Island. Three-point shooting, once a strength, has also deteriorated, with ASU shooting just 23.6% from beyond the arc during its current losing streak.
Freshman forward Marcus Bagley, who leads the team in rebounding by a wide margin, has been the lone bright spot in that regard. But he also missed three games prior to the COVID-19 break due to a lower leg injury.
“I feel like we can definitely do better, we can definitely clean up,” he said. “But having already a small roster and being without our starting big man, Jalen Graham, it makes it even tougher on us. But rebounding isn’t always about how big you are, it’s just going and getting it, basically. So we can definitely do better in that department and I feel like we’re working on it.”
ASU was never meant to be a premier rebounding team, especially after the departure of big man Romello White, who transferred to Mississippi last spring. The Sun Devils have done the best they can with Bagley and junior transfer Chris Osten holding down the fort until Cherry and Graham return. Hurley noted that, when the team stays within single-digit rebounds of their opponent, they’re competitive.
But with arguably the strongest backcourt in the conference, they were supposed to excel from distance. After averaging 33.5% from beyond the arc last season, Martin is now shooting just 21.6%. Christopher, touted as a talented range shooter, is at 24.3%.
Hurley attributes some of those struggles to the on-and-off nature of this season, as well as Martin’s two-game absence.
“We’re creatures of habit, routine,” he said. “You try and develop chemistry and rhythm on offense because you have guys playing together on a continual basis, and having the disruptions make it a little more challenging to build that.”
Another challenge this season has been the lack of fans. Between the loud crowds and the Curtain of Distraction, Desert Financial Arena has provided fire for the players in recent years, especially Martin. While Hurley wouldn’t speak to how the empty stadium is affecting Martin specifically, he admitted that the fanless games might be contributing to the team’s struggles.
“It’s been a weird feeling, certainly, and not something I’m hopeful will be part of our future again,” he said. “Guys live and feed off the adrenaline of the game. And believe me, we still are out there fiercely competing and totally locked in, but I do believe the crowd adds another dimension to what you’re doing.”
The Sun Devils have their work cut out for them this week. They host Arizona Thursday, then head to Tucson to face the Wildcats again next Monday, a schedule change made in the hopes that both teams can make up previously postponed games during the season’s final week.
Both games should be intense. The Wildcats are 10-3 and coming off a blowout win at Oregon State. They lead the conference in points per game, rank second in rebounds and have held opponents to just 31.2% from the three. After getting beat by ASU 70-7 in football, Arizona will be hungry for revenge in basketball.
During his Wednesday press conference, Hurley said Graham has made significant progress and could be available for Thursday’s game. While Cherry is out indefinitely, Graham’s return means the team will be at close to full strength for the first time in more than a month.
And if they’re going to make a run, it needs to start now. After Monday, 10 games remain on ASU’s schedule, along with the four currently unscheduled makeup games. It won’t be easy, but a sweep of Arizona would leave ASU at 6-6 overall (3-3 in-conference) and in a good position to finish the season on a hot streak and possibly sneak into the NCAA tournament.
Hurley and Bagley both think the Sun Devils are up for the challenge. Their last three losses were close, and while significant problems on the court remain to be addressed, in those games the team showed something that had been missing as of late: fight.
“We’ve fixed some things from a competitive nature,” Hurley said. “Spirit, dealing with adversity, and in both the UTEP and San Diego State game, we didn’t have the response. [Against UCLA and USC] we had the response. That’s a positive sign. Now we’ve got to add some efficiency on offense and making some shots.”
“Mentally, I mean, it’s a lot, it’s a tough year for everybody,” Bagley said. “But I think the teams that figure out a way to stay locked in, stay focused over a period of time is going to be the team that’s going to prevail in the end. So we just gotta figure it out.”