LAS VEGAS – March is defined by its unsung heroes and Cinderella magic that propels unlikely teams and players to make names for themselves.
Even though Arizona State (22-12) fell short against in-state rival Arizona (26-6) in the semifinals of the Pac-12 Men’s Basketball Tournament, the Sun Devils found themselves another reliable option in Jimaya Neal. Neal has taken on an expanded role in the absence of Austin Nunez and his play has been one of the tournament’s biggest takeaways for the Suns Devils.
“It’s about seizing opportunity and he’s done it,” coach Bobby Hurley said after the 78-59 loss. “I saw it the week of practice coming into the Arizona game at Arizona. He just knew he was going to have a bigger role and to his credit he’s always stayed ready.”
After struggling to solidify his place in the rotation throughout the season, Neal was a spark plug off the bench all tournament long. He doubled his season average for points in the three games against OSU, USC and Arizona and had a team high 11 in the loss to the Wildcats.
“It was unfortunate because he was one of our best players in the offseason and he had a lower leg injury and he was set back early in the year,” Hurley said. “He had to work his way and climb his way into the rotation and he’s done it and been very productive. He had a great tournament.”.
Neal’s rise to key contributor during the most important time of the season comes as no surprise to his teammates. They knew Neal’s value and couldn’t be more pleased to see him blossom into a pivotal role in Hurley’s lineup.
“Jamiya stepped up big time and he’s been playing great. He’s been shooting the ball well and can guard one through four on the court,” said Frankie Collins, who matched Neal’s 11 as the team’s highest scorer. “Having him locked in and making the impact he has is probably the best thing that could have happened to us.”
“Jamiya has been really big. His play is important to our team and the success we have had these past couple of games,” DJ Horne said. “There is no better time to be playing your best basketball than now so for us it’s just continuing to support and encourage him as a teammate.”
In his sophomore year, Neal has taken enormous strides on both ends of the courts. The combination of his 6-foot-6 frame, his ability to create his own shot and his maturity has finally come together as the Sun Devils brace for news about their NCAA tournament chances.
“We need him to continue to do the same things: rebounding and making plays,” said Devan Cambridge. “He’s a 6-6 point guard with handles and a shot so we need him to keep doing him.”
Cambridge described Neal as, “his little brother,” and is certain that if he continues to lock in he is “a force to be reckoned with.”
For the former Hillcrest Prep recruit, the elevation of his game will be instrumental to the Suns Devils’ success if they advance to the tournament and hope to continue success. After the loss to Arizona, Arizona State will have a few days to rest up and recover if they get selected for March Madness Sunday.
Neal recognized the position his team is in and believes that if the players can maintain the intensity they demonstrated for most of the week, they can spoil a lot of people’s brackets come tournament time.
“We need to keep playing how we’ve been playing. Bottle it up and try and savor it,” Neal said. “Hopefully, on Sunday they let us in the tournament and if we get in we can make some noise by playing this way.”
The Sun Devils will have to wait and see if the selection committee deems them worthy of an at-large bid. Hurley believes their resume warrants a place in March Madness.
“I truly believe that if you take our three best wins and you compare them to other bubble teams, I don’t think it’s close,” he said. “We’ve demonstrated that we could go away from our home court and win, and that’s a major priority in the NCAA tournament.
“I think these guys deserve it. Any time you go on a neutral site and beat Creighton and USC or go to Arizona and win, those are serious wins. So I’m hopeful with all the things I stated that we would have a really, really good chance to get into the NCAA tournament.”