The Arizona State basketball team won 15 games in Bobby Hurley’s first season as coach and 15 more in his second.
The difference is in the details, accounting for Hurley’s optimistic outlook as he shifts back into full-time recruiting mode for next season – there still is room for one more scholarship player – and beyond.
ASU spurted to a 10-3 non-conference record in 2015-16, creating some buzz about a postseason berth only to finish 11th in the Pac-12 and lose in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament for 15-17 overall. This season, the Sun Devils were just 7-6 in non-conference but improved to eighth in the Pac-12 – three places higher than forecast in the preseason media poll – and won a Pac-12 Tournament game for the first time since 2013.
Hurley coaxed a 15-18 record out of a team so thin that in one game, the five starters played all but one minute, a statistic that Hurley can live without seeing again for the rest of his coaching career.
The good news for ASU is that even given the losses of scoring leader Torian Graham (18.6 ppg) and rebounding leader Obinna Oleka (9.9 rpg), ample help is on the way to complement returning starters Tra Holder, Shannon Evans and Kodi Justice. The Sun Devils will add at least six players for 2017-18, four of those measuring 6-foot-7 or taller.
ASU’s 2017 recruiting class is ranked No. 15 nationally by 247 Sports. That incoming freshman group – 6-5 forward Kimani Lawrence, 6-0 point guard Remy Martin and 6-8 forward Kenny Wooten (who will sign in April) – will join 6-7 forward Mickey Mitchell, 6-8 forward Romello White and 6-9 forward Vitaliy Shibel, all of whom sat out this season for various reasons, as projected contributors.
“Our responsibility is to change the narrative so we are a deeper team, a bigger team and have more ways we can win,” Hurley said. “This year’s team exceeded all my reasonable expectations based on size, having to rely heavily on the 3-point shot and always being at a disadvantage around the basket and rebounding. You can’t win games consistently if you’re giving away those things.”
Mitchell is a transfer from Ohio State who practiced with ASU since December, the month he will be eligible to play next season as a sophomore. White (academics) and Shibel (knee injury) redshirted as freshmen with Shibel recently undergoing arthroscopic surgery that is not expected to significantly slow his recovery.
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“Mickey has been a monster in practice with how he’s pushed our first unit,” Hurley said. “He brings a level of toughness we need, and he was our best passer a lot in practice. I’m looking to add him to our nucleus in leadership. Romello is another guy you wish could have played this year with his rebounding and scoring around the basket. I can’t wait to get him on the floor.”
Lawrence, Martin and Wooten are four-star recruits per the 247 Sports composite rating. Martin plays for Sierra Canyon School (Calif.), ranked No. 14 in USA TODAY Super 25 high school rankings. Sierra Canyon, also with elite post recruit Marvin Bagley, who is considering ASU among other schools, recently was upset in the first round of the CIF Open Division southern regional to finish 27-3.
Hurley said Lawrence is “a great all-around player. He does a little bit of everything. He’s an impact player and ready to play at this level early in his career.”
Martin can learn from Holder and Evans, going into their senior seasons, without having undue pressure as a freshman.
“He’s great off the dribble like I love guards to be,” Hurley said of Martin. “As we build the program, we want a team that can score in the open court, and Remy is excellent in the transition game.”
Forwards Ramon Vila, Andre Adams and Jethro Tshisumpa had minimal success as freshmen with the 6-10 Tshisumpa suspended for a team rules violation for the final six games. Their roles going forward remains to be seen although clearly they will face more competition for playing time.
“We’re raising the bar in terms of expectations,” Hurley said. “They have to have great off seasons because there are better players coming into the program.” Specifically on Tshisumpa, he added, “We’re evaluating him and trying to see where he fits in our program. That’s to be determined.”
ASU finished No. 124 of 351 in the NCAA ratings percentage index. The Sun Devils begin a home-and-home series with Kansas next season, going there first, and also will play games in a Las Vegas tournament against two of these possible teams: Kansas State, Xavier and George Washington. San Diego State is coming to Wells Fargo Arena, and there will be a non-conference game at Staples Center in Los Angeles against a Power 5 Conference team.
When ASU is ready again for postseason – it last made the NCAA Tournament in 2014 and the NIT in 2015 – Hurley doesn’t want any question about strength of schedule (No. 62 Sagarin this season).
“I always have very high standards for what I want to do, and I want to do it now,” Hurley said. “I turned the team around at Buffalo and won a championship in two years. It hasn’t happened as fast here, and there’s been some bumps along the way that I’ve learned from and grown as a coach. We’re set up to continue to take steps over the next couple of years. I have a good feeling success is right around the corner.”