TEMPE – For Arizona State’s men’s basketball, the same plays that made the team laugh last season are the same plays that made the team cry.
The 2022-23 season was filled with moments that left ASU fans on the edge of their seats. Riding the wave of returners, an impressive freshman class and the transfer portal, veteran guard Frankie Collins says there is no reason the team should not be playing for the national championship in the Sun Devils’ backyard at the 2024 Men’s Final Four.
“I think we are further ahead this time of the year than we would normally be,” ASU coach Bobby Hurley said Wednesday.
Glancing back, Hurley’s team gave fans plenty of reasons to gasp. In February, the Sun Devils had three seconds left and no timeouts in a head-to-head duel against their in-state rival, the University of Arizona. Sophomore forward Jamiya Neal looked for fifth-year guard Desmond Cambridge Jr. in McKale Center, as every person rose from their seat.
One catch, one dribble, two steps and over 26,000 eyes glued to the basketball, Cambridge Jr. launched it over 40 feet and hit nothing but net.
One month later, the Sun Devils experienced the other side. With 1.5 seconds left in the first round of the NCAA tournament, TCU’s JaKobe Coles made a 10-foot floater to cut off ASU’s music at the Big Dance.
Last season, the Sun Devils were 11-5 in games with a deficit of six points or less. Hurley hopes to sustain intensity in games while actively working on the team’s chemistry ahead of the upcoming season.
“We’re never satisfied,” Hurley said. “We’re not content with anything. We had a great season last year but now we are trying to take further steps to get better. Going to the NCAA tournament is great and it’s very difficult and we take pride in that but at the same time, we’re trying to win championships.”
Cambridge Jr. led the Sun Devils in scoring and Luther Muhammad provided leadership, but both players exhausted their collegiate eligibility. Cambridge Jr. played with the Toronto Raptors in the NBA Summer League and now plays for Sabah BC in the Azerbaijan Basketball League.
Seven-foot forward Warren Washington added size and depth to the Sun Devil roster while averaging seven rebounds and shooting 56.3% from the field. Immediately after the conclusion of the academic year, Washington announced he would transfer to Texas Tech University.
ASU lost another one of its starters and aggressive defenders in Devan Cambridge to Texas Tech. During his senior campaign, Cambridge set the NCAA record for most steals (160).
DJ Horne, who made the decision to spend his last year of eligibility at NC State, added to ASU’s efficiency around the perimeter with 253 successful 3-pointers.
Duke Brennan (Grand Canyon), Austin Nunez (Ole Miss) and Enoch Boakye (Fresno State) also transferred in the offseason.
“I think we still have a lot of athleticism around the perimeter,” Hurley said. “There’s a lot of good length around the perimeter. Jamiya Neal and Frankie (Collins) help with this and also play well defensively.”
Back for another round
Collins, a senior guard, returns to the Valley after being a consistent starter while scoring in double figures 19 times with two 20-plus point games. He excelled in his rebounding efforts and expressed wanting to work on his free throw execution.
“Frankie and I have to be connected,” Hurley said. “He has to be unbreakable at the point guard position. He has to be the heart and soul of this team. I’m still trying to reinforce that communication with him. He’s put a lot of work in on his shot and he needs to trust that.”
As one of five returners, Collins has been called upon by Hurley to be more of a leader this season. As a guard, Collins described his job as being an extension of Hurley but said fulfilling this role has been difficult in the past because Collins and Hurley only communicated about basketball. But during the offseason, Collins saw a shift.
“I think our relationship has evolved,” Collins said. “Now I go to his office every day and talk to him whether if it’s basketball or something else or even if it’s him just checking in to see if I’m there mentally.”
Accountability, Collins said, is non-negotiable for him. He believes the best way to be a leader is by reminding everyone of their role.
Junior wing Jamiya Neal has a different outlook.
“I’m not one of those guys that’s going to nitpick because I do like to have fun,” Neal said. “It’s a time and a place for everything. When it’s time, I say what needs to be said. I’m the type of leader that wants to build everybody up.”
Neal started last season slowly and began to find his groove as the season went on. Each year, ASU’s coaching staff expressed seeing intentional improvement from him. Hurley explained the confidence Neal exudes in his own abilities and his teammates’ abilities is much needed while trying to work on the group’s chemistry.
“He (Neal) was cut out to do better earlier (in the season),” Hurley said. “He had to sit out due to injury and that put him behind some other guys. He played really well when we went to New York. He got caught up in a numbers game but down the stretch, we had a lot of injuries and he took advantage by playing good basketball.”
Bobby Hurley Jr., Jordan Williams and Alonzo Gaffney also decided to stay in the Valley. The team will look to 6-foot-9 forward Gaffney to increase its presence in the paint while paying close attention to upholding his demonstrated defensive ability after leading the team in blocks last season.
New kids on the block
For ASU’s freshmen class, less is more these days.
It includes walk-on Andrew Mayock. Hurley was also able to recruit Braelon Green and Akil Watson, who both landed on ESPN’s top recruiting lists from their respective states.
Green, ranked the No. 2 player in Michigan, hopes to aid ASU’s backcourt by bringing his controlled ball handling and athleticism to the group.
Watson comes from one of the best high school basketball programs in the country, Roselle Catholic in Ramsey, N.J., and led his team to a win in the NJSIAA Non-Public Division B Championship game with 23 points. ASU looks to leverage his ability to get to the basket.
The infamous portal
The Sun Devils may have lost some impactful pieces to the transfer portal but on the opposite end, the portal may have provided the group with exactly what they needed. University of Louisville’s Kamari Lands, Houston Christian University’s Brycen Long, Tallahassee Community College’s Malachi Davis, Louisiana State’s Shawn Philips Jr., University of San Francisco’s Zane Meeks and University of Tulsa’s Bryant Selebangue will all be sporting burgundy and gold this athletic year.
“The transfers that we brought in have something to prove, particularly Kamari and Shawn coming from losing environments. Now they have to come in here and help us win basketball games,” Hurley said. “I do like the strategy we used when going into the portal.”
Selebangue brings energy to the Sun Devils offense after leading Tulsa in points (12) and rebounding (9) per game while knocking down 61.5% of his field goals. Selebaganue spent two years in JUCO developing his game before transferring to Tulsa.
Collins and Neal appeared to be most excited about Phillips. Similar to Neal, Philips gained his footing later in the season. Philips proved he can handle high-pressure moments early in his career at LSU, where he played in 20 games, including a tough performance against Georgia with 13 points and 10 rebounds.
“Shawn is probably the most athletic big we’ve had since I got here,” Neal said. “He gets off the ground really fast. He doesn’t need to bend or anything, he just catches and goes.”
Hurley had even higher praise.
“Shawn is the most gifted frontcourt guy I’ve had,” he said. “He’s naturally gifted. His story and what he’s been through has been amazing. He’s got a tremendous upside and you may not see these things on the floor every night, he’s a work in progress.
“He’s our youngest player (19) but he’s just got great feet and great hands and he’s so explosive with his seven-five wing span.”
ASU has released its non-conference schedule, with the first matchup on Nov. 8 against Mississippi State in Chicago, Illinois at the Barstool Sports Invitational.
“I think it’s (non-conference schedule) challenging,” Hurley said. “We put together a lot of good neutral site games. I don’t know too many schools that are starting as difficult as we are with playing Mississippi State. They’re one of the best defensive teams in the country. There’s a lot of high-profile games, and I think it creates a good balance for what we were looking for.”
The schedule also pits the Sun Devils against Texas Southern at the Vegas Showdown after falling to the Tigers (67-66) in November 2022.
Other schedule highlights include the Sun Devils and TCU squaring off in an NCAA Tournament rematch against TCU on Dec. 16.
On Dec. 20, ASU takes the stage at Footprint Center against Northwestern.
“I think we can certainly top what we did last year,” Collins said. “We have the speed and we have everything we need to be that great defensive team.”