Sun Devils seeking consistency with NCAA tournament hopes on the line
Arizona State wasn’t supposed to be in this situation -- not again. The feeling of angst, doubt, and uncertainty swirling through Tempe like an August Haboob was to be a thing of the past, alleviated by guys like Taeshon Cherry, Luguentz Dort, and Zylan Cheatham.
Instead, dark clouds sit just over the horizon as the dust begins to kick up in front of Wells Fargo Arena. It’s back.
As the calendar turns to the second week in February, ASU’s’ NCAA Tournament hopes spin and turn like a coin twirling through the air. The outcome is unclear. Ask around, it seems like half the people with interest think the Sun Devils will cruise into March. Others think that’s crazy -- “Are they all the sudden going to be consistent,” they’ll argue.
That’s a more than fair criticism, one that comes to light through their bipolar, game-to-game swings which leave those in Tempe, and around the country, scratching their heads and wondering, is Arizona State good?
The Sun Devils have followed up wins against Georgia, Kansas, UCLA, and Arizona with losses against Vanderbilt, Princeton, USC and Washington State, respectively. They currently sit at 16-7 and 7-4 against a down Pac-12 conference, good enough for a firm seat on the bubble with seven regular-season games remaining.
“Sometimes we may win the big game and then we’ll slack off in practice and we’ll mess around and lose a game we’re not supposed to,” Sophomore forward Romello White said. “Really, us just focused on keeping the same mentality as we did in a big game as we did going into a regular game. We just have to keep doing that and keep going hard.”
After losing to Washington State (10-14, 3-8 Pac-12) by 21 on Thursday, ASU regrouped to beat conference-leading Washington, 75-63. In a vacuum, it was a huge Quadrant 2 victory that seemingly keeps the Devils on the right side of the tournament cut line … for now.
“We played with a level of desperation that you have to play with,” ASU head coach Bobby Hurley said. “But you can’t just do that because coach is mad that we didn’t play well two days earlier or you’re mad at yourself that you didn’t play well. You have to find a way to have the mindset and the chip on your shoulder to want to play that way all the time.”
On Tuesday, just hours before departing Tempe on a flight for Colorado, Hurley stood in front a congregate of media and expressed a sentiment about the Devils’ tournament hopes that seemed to have fallen by the waist side three bad losses ago.
As he did around this time last season, Hurley decided to reflect on ASU’s momentus non-conference victories rather than acknowledging that perhaps those have been diminished with an average Pac-12 showing.
“We have to rely on all of our tough games that we played, what we put ourselves through in the non-conference, how we pushed ourselves and all the big-time games we’ve been in,” Hurley said. “Everyone of them is like that now. You’ve got to have a single-elimination mentality to every game like it’s our last game. Five of the last seven are on the road so we’ve got to play together and tough.”
ASU is a meager 3-3 on the road this season, still without a conference weekend road sweep in Hurley’s four seasons. As Devils Digest writer, and resident bracketologist, Jeff Griffith, pointed out in his Saturday column, “It’s quite likely that ‘Bobby Hurley still hasn’t swept a road series at ASU’ and ‘ASU made the NCAA Tournament” can’t be simultaneously true statements when mid-March rolls around.”
It seems that ASU will need five to six more wins to go dancing. A vaunted Rocky-Mountain sweep would afford it a much-needed head start in that effort. Conscious of their situation, the Devils know that.
“We have to stick together and play as a team and not turn the ball over,” White said. “Just us trying to practice as hard as we can. Listening to coach. Scouting well. Focusing on our ball-screen defense because Colorado likes to do a lot of ball screens. We’ve been trying to go hard in every practice, even if it’s just a skill workout, we try and go hard.”
Taeshon Cherry status
Arizona State has been without the services of forward Taeshon Cherry for nearly three weeks after the freshman suffered two separate concussions and was put into concussion protocol.
The Southern California native was hit in the head early in ASU’s win over UCLA, forcing him to head to the locker room and miss the USC game two days later. Then, during the Sun Devils’ victory over Arizona two weeks ago, Cherry dove on the ground and took a hard shot to the head.
In extended concussion protocol, Cherry missed the Washington State and Washington game last weekend, robbing ASU of a 3-point shooter that it desperately needed.
On Tuesday, with ASU’s most important stretch of the season looming, Cherry tweeted the news he and the Sun Devils had been eager for.
Fully Cleared to play this week ‼️‼️ Excited to go back to war with my brothers 💪🏽💪🏽— Tae Cherry (@tcherry002) February 12, 2019
Cherry, who had been a limited participant in practice this week, was a full participant on Tuesday. That, though, doesn’t mean Cherry will play against Colorado on Wednesday, Hurley said. Instead, Cherry will be evaluated later Tuesday night and after Wednesday’s shootaround.
“It’s going to go right through shootaround,” Hurley admitted. “Even how he feels an hour from now has to be like he felt right before practice. But he has gone through the entire (concussion) protocol so he’s completed all of the steps. Now, we just have to make sure he’s fine through the next 24 hours.”
Asked what Cherry brings to the Sun Devils when he’s on the court, Hurley didn’t hesitate as he ran through a laundry list of redeeming qualities.
“He plays hard. He goes after the ball. He’s a rebounder. He’s got good size,” Hurley said of Cherry. “He’s made a lot of good defensive plays for us and he’s a real threat for us to shoot. He’s got a great shot when he’s locked in.”
With their tournament destiny on the line, the Sun Devils could use all of that.