TEMPE – For many fans of Arizona State men’s basketball, the state of the Sun Devils in March probably seemed incomprehensible four months ago.
ASU entered the 2020-21 season with a couple of highly touted recruits in Josh Christopher and Marcus Bagley. Senior guard Remy Martin was returning after ranking second in scoring in the Pac-12 during the 2019-20 season. And the Sun Devils were ranked 18th in the Associated Press preseason top 25 – the first time ASU had cracked that poll since Bobby Hurley was hired as coach in 2015.
Expectations were high.
Oh, how quickly it all changed.
After a 10-13 (7-10 conference) regular season, ASU entered the Pac-12 Men’s Basketball Tournament as the No. 8 seed. Although the game went to the wire, the Sun Devils defeated ninth-seeded Washington State 64-59 in the opening game of the tournament at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. They advance to play Oregon on Thursday.
ASU will need to run the table and win the tournament to get an automatic NCAA tournament bid if they hope to realize the March Madness ambitions they had just four months ago.
More realistically, the Sun Devils enter the week searching for silver linings in a disappointing season.
With injuries and COVID-19 shutdowns plaguing its season from beginning to end, ASU still has not played a single game with its entire roster available, and that won’t change during the Pac-12 Tournament. The team’s two prized freshmen, Christopher and Bagley, won’t be ready for the tournament, Hurley said.
Still, the Sun Devils chugged along, and Hurley sensed a positive outlook from them as they prepared to head to Las Vegas where they hope to extend a season that began with so much promise.
“I do feel like I’ve noticed a positive attitude in practice today – a confident way about the guys – and certainly we’re not just here to go take a trip to Vegas,” Hurley said in a Zoom news conference Tuesday. “I just don’t feel like that’s the vibe I’m getting from the team right now.”
On an individual level, the Sun Devils received some good news Tuesday when Martin was named to the All-Pac-12 First Team for the second time in his ASU career, underscoring the impact he has had on the program.
Martin’s contribution through a difficult season is easily one of the biggest positives of the year for ASU. On Feb. 27, he capped off what was likely his final game at Desert Financial Arena with a go-ahead jumper that came with 0.4 seconds left on the clock, sealing an ASU victory over Washington State.
Martin didn’t entirely rule out the possibility of using the extra year of eligibility afforded to all NCAA winter sport student-athletes this year because of the pandemic, but said he hopes to get a shot in the NBA after this season.
“I’m a man that always lives in the present,” Martin said. “I’m never looking in the future, just living in the present, trying to hopefully get an NBA shot somewhere or whatever the best option is for me. If it doesn’t happen for me, I’m happy to come back and play. I just love playing here.”
Whatever the case, the Sun Devils will need more of the same production from Martin if they hope to make a run in this week’s Pac-12 Tournament. Hurley said Martin has proven his ability to get hot this year. He had a stretch of eight straight games and nine out of 10 in which he scored more than 20 points.
“You’re going to need him, and some other guys, to really get it rolling this week,” Hurley said. “We do have the firepower to do that even without Josh (Christopher) and Marcus (Bagley).”
ASU looks to senior forward Kimani Lawrence and sophomore guard Jaelen House to continue their upward trend late in the season. Lawrence’s presence on the boards and House’s contributions on the defensive end of the floor have been revelations in the Sun Devils improved stretch of play late in the conference schedule.
Lawrence tallied 21 points and 20 rebounds in the Feb. 25 game against Washington – an 80-72 ASU win. It was his second straight double-double and the first 20 point/20 rebound game by an ASU player in over two decades.
House, on the other hand, has been a steady contributor defensively and has seen a lot more minutes in the absence of Josh Christopher, who has been out with a lower leg injury. House leads the team with 1.5 steals per game and has accumulated 20 steals in his last 10 games. And offensively, House put up a season-high 13 points Thursday at Colorado.
To make it all come together at the season’s most crucial point, ASU will need production from up and down what’s left of its roster.
“We’re not giving up on our season,” Lawrence said recently. “I know we are shorthanded, but there’s still a lot of basketball to be played, and there’s still a chance for us to play a full season. And that’s the goal. So, we’ve just got to take it one game at a time.”