Next man up: ASU scrambling after Jose Perez departs ahead of Pac-12 Men’s Basketball Tournament

ASU guard Jamiya Neal, right, and center Shawn Phillips Jr. expect to raise their level of play in the absence of Jose Perez, who is no longer with the program. (Photo by Emma Jeanson/Cronkite News)

TEMPE – A three-game skid to end the regular season and a key player’s “business decision” to depart the team left Arizona State scrambling ahead of its trip to Las Vegas for the final Pac-12 Men’s Basketball Tournament.

The Sun Devils lost their second-leading scorer this season when graduate senior guard José Perez left the team. It wasn’t due to injury or disciplinary action by ASU or the NCAA. Instead, Perez decided to accept a deal to turn professional and play – immediately – in the Dominican Republic

“Well, we have to – to a degree – reinvent ourselves. We just have to be a little bit different and, you know, we’ve had a little more time now from the UCLA game to start coming up with a better game plan,” said ASU coach Bobby Hurley, referring to the regular season finale last Saturday, a 59-47 loss to the Bruins.

Arizona State enters the Pac-12 Tournament as the No. 11 seed and will need to quickly find life offensively from some new faces in order to keep its season alive when the Sun Devils meet sixth-seeded Utah Wednesday night at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

“We tightened the rotation some in the UCLA game, but we’re going to have to find more minutes for guys like Kamari Lands and most likely Akil Watson and Braelon Green,” Hurley said, ticking off the players who could fill the gaping hole Perez left behind in the lineup. Perez averaged 13.5 points a game this season, second only to junior guard Frankie Collins, who averaged 13.6.

Lands, a sophomore guard, has the most production of the three so far having played in 27 games. He is averaging more than 18 minutes and more than four points per game.

The Sun Devils finished the regular season on a three-game skid, and two of those losses came before they were blindsided by the departure of Perez ahead of their regular season finale at UCLA. Now, Hurley and his program face dire circumstances heading to Vegas.

However, the Sun Devils open against Utah, and of all the matchups they could have drawn, this one appears to give ASU its best chance to advance. They are currently slated as six point underdogs by Draftkings Sportsbook, but Utah is the only team in the Pac-12 the Sun Devils managed to sweep in conference play this season.

One problem: Perez was their leading scorer in both games.

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With or without Perez, Hurley said the Sun Devils need to clean things up in order to stand a chance against the Utes in a win-or-go-home scenario.

“Now that you’re playing for your season, you can’t have a catastrophic breakdown in one particular category,” Hurley said. “You may not be great or really good in every area, but you can’t be (so) brutal in one area that it’s such a significant difference that it costs you.”

That mindset means that if the Sun Devils can’t find their groove offensively, they’re going to have to make up for it on the other side of the ball in order to stop a prolific Utah offense. In their last matchup, Arizona State allowed the Utes to shoot nearly 50%, including 30% from 3-point range. The Utes shot 36% from behind the arc for the season.

“I think if we just play fast and try to play at a higher tempo than them, I think they wouldn’t be able to keep up with us,” Collins said.

ASU played well enough in the tournament last season to reach the semifinals, earning a First Four bid, where the Sun Devils beat Nevada to move into the NCAA Tournament field. The run ended with a 72-70 loss to Texas Christian.

Now, the Sun Devils have to regroup without Perez in an effort to make another postseason splash.

“This is the team we started with, since June, July, and this is the team we ended the season with,” Collins said. “It’s only going to be us, and we got to have each other.”

Last year’s team went into the conference tournament with a 11-9 conference record and as a No. 6 seed. The Sun Devils finished with an 8-12 record in Pac-12 play this season, despite a 4-0 start in league play. And ASU was just 14-17 overall in 2023-24, meaning a run to the semifinals won’t be enough to get the team into the NCAA field this time.

Only winning the Pac-12 Tournament title and the league’s automatic bid will get the Sun Devils into the NCAA bracket, but a deep run could help them land an NIT bid.

“We don’t have time right now to try to figure things out, to see that we do it now or it’s over with,” Collins said. “So I just think we’ve got to be mentally strong and we have a challenge moving forward. So you got to step up to it.”

It’s a heady challenge. In the final year of the Pac-12, ASU has one last chance to win the tournament, something that has never happened in program history. As Hurley said, it’s reinvention time.

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Stephen Buxton expects to graduate May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Buxton has experience with Varsity Sports Show calling football games for Desert Mountain this last season and AZPreps 365 reporting on local high school sports. After graduating he hopes to get a broadcasting job dreaming of one day doing play by play for football or baseball.

Emma Jeanson(she/her)
Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Emma Jeanson expects to graduate in May 2025 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. She has covered various sports around Arizona and has worked with AIA and AZPreps365.