PHOENIX – The Sun Devils are back.
After a four-year hiatus, Arizona State is dancing again as it prepares to play Nevada in Dayton, Ohio in a First Four game of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Wednesday.
“It’s a fantastic feeling. Just everything we’ve been through, you reflect on the whole journey and there’s a lot of ups and downs along the way, and I’m just really excited for the kids,” said ASU coach Bobby Hurley. “They wanted it badly.
“I think we put together a type of season that was more than deserving for this opportunity.”
The road to the big dance was not easy for the Sun Devils, who are a 2.5-point favorite going into Wednesday’s game. With a close home game against a quadrant four team in Tarleton State and a quadrant four loss at Texas Southern, the Sun Devils stumbled early in the season.
However, despite being picked to finish sixth in the Pac-12 by ESPN, the Sun Devils exceeded preseason expectations and made major noise to the NCAA bracket committee with a late regular-season win over the rival Arizona on a 60-foot buzzer-beater by Desmond Cambridge, Jr.
ASU picked up nine straight wins, including major neutral site wins against tournament teams Virginia Commonwealth and Creighton and a victory over Michigan, which will take part in the National Invitational Tournament as a No. 3-seed.
However, after moving into the Associated Press Top 25 poll, the Sun Devils were humbled by San Francisco in a 37-point loss to the Dons earlier in the season.
The Sun Devils also suffered four straight losses in the middle of the Pac-12 race. Following those losses, ASU finished conference play 5-4 and picked up two key wins in the Pac-12 Tournament to reach the semifinals.
After their last win against USC in a must-win quarterfinal game of the Pac-12 Tournament, Hurley was more than pleased with his team’s effort.
“We were probably the best version of ourselves,” Hurley said. “We guarded, we held them at 25% (shooting), we turned them over, and we had shotmaking. We played both ends of the floor in kind of a must-win game and we delivered.”
The Sun Devils have a 14-17 NCAA tournament record and are making their 17th appearance in March Madness. Last time, in 2019, Hurley and Co. lost in the first round to Buffalo, Hurley’s previous school, which he led to the tournament in 2015.
Hurley has changed his approach to the postseason while growing as a coach.
“I think that I have a better feel for who I am really and what I value,” he said. “I think I’ve worked on trying to be a little less volatile and just keeping my composure more…
“I’m very passionate and will still be, from time to time, straight with the officials, but I’ve worked hard on that just to be more rock solid.”
The Nevada Wolf Pack brings some familiarity to ASU. Guard Desmond Cambridge, Jr. and center Warren Washington played for Nevada last season, so they are familiar with the Wolf Pack’s system.
The two transfers have made the squad more versatile than it was in years past by providing needed scoring and rebounding to the table.
“They both bring different dimensions to our team,” Hurley said. “Des led us in scoring, and we struggled to score last year. That’s probably what held us back the most last season. He provides instant offense and is never afraid of the moment, taking big shots, making big shots. He’s a heck of a perimeter defender.
“Warren has just been our anchor around the basket. Just his ability to challenge shots, block shots and rebound the ball. Beyond that, they’re both great kids and they’ve certainly advanced our program having them here.”
Nevada relies mostly on its guards to do all the work. Starting guards Jarod Lucas and Kenan Blackshear average 17.4 and 14.4 points, respectively. Center Will Baker complements the guard play perfectly as being a reliable scorer around the basket.
“I know my guys will be ready to go and this special opportunity as a college basketball player is always looking forward to playing in March Madness, and it’s always the goal and it’s good to be back,” Lucas said.
Tre Coleman and Darrion Williams round out the rest of Nevada’s starting five as defensive impact players. Coleman averages a steal and a block per game, and Williams leads the team in rebounds with 7.3 per contest.
In his 10th season at Nevada, coach Steve Alford shared his excitement for not only his team but also the Mountain West Conference.
“It’s exciting for our program having all the guys returning and not having one guy who doesn’t have eligibility left. This is a huge step for us, and I think the experience that we’re about to undertake is going to be huge for us, not just this year but moving forward,” Alford said.
Playing against former teammates is always a hard task, and the Wolf Pack agree that playing against Cambridge and Washington will be a challenge.
“I never imagined it one time, but for it to end like that will be a great story,” Blackshear said.
Coming off an overtime loss in the Mountain West Conference championship game, the Wolf Pack hope to hand ASU another quick tournament exit. However, the Wolf Pack has not played the type of aggressive defense the Sun Devils play. ASU has caused at least 10 turnovers for 26 consecutive games and in 32 out of the past 34 games, which is the second most in the Pac-12.
The Sun Devils will emphasize effective guard play, with Frankie Collins, DJ Horne and Cambridge carrying the load offensively. At times, inconsistent shooting from Horne and Collins and bad shot selection from Cambridge has plagued the team over the course of the season. If one of them struggles, freshman guard Austin Nunez, a consistent threat off the bench all season, will need to provide an electric spark of energy and enthusiasm.
Texas Christian awaits the winner of Wednesday’s showdown in the first round, and the road to the Final Four only increases in difficulty with UCLA, Gonzaga, Connecticut and Kansas vying to represent the region.