Arizona State is 7-0, ranked No. 16 in the country and embarking on arguably its biggest weekend in the Bobby Hurley era. With a pair of games against quality opponents in St. John’s and No. 2 Kansas, the litmus-test weekend reminds the Sun Devils’ third-year head coach of the Big Dance.
He has his team preparing as though it actually is.
“We are even looking at this as an NCAA tournament situation,” Hurley said during his Wednesday afternoon press conference.
His metaphor is accurate: two games in three days against opponents with a combined 15-1 record entering play on Wednesday. It might only be December, but the two-game task is a perfect match to challenges imposed by March basketball.
Hurley is mandating a ‘one game at a time’ mentality.
“It’s two high caliber opponents,” he said. “We’ve been focusing primarily on St. John’s. That’s the next game in front of us.”
For Hurley, a two-time national champion during his storied career at Duke, the March Madness-like weekend is nothing new. The same can’t be said of his program though, which hasn’t qualified for the tournament since 2014.
“I’ve never played in the tournament so I don’t really know how that goes,” said senior guard Tra Holder, who leads ASU with 22.1 points per game.
“These practices have been very tough and hard to get us ready to play two quick games,” he added. “Coach has a lot of experience playing back-to-back stuff like that.”
The faux-tournament mindset is forcing ASU to keep a singular focus on the “first round” contest against St. John’s at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Friday. Just like a potential postseason run, ASU will have to take care of business against a rugged middle-seed-caliber opponent before preparing to face a national powerhouse.
“We’ve been focusing primarily on St. John’s. That’s the next game in front of us,” Hurley said. “…I was very impressed with the effort and energy that they have on defense. They’re certainly one of the best defensive teams that I’ve watched play this year getting ready for an opponent.”
Hurley has even tweaked his practices to adjust to the Red Storm’s hectic and high-pressure defense, a unit which is No. 8 in the country in scoring allowed, surrendering just 60 points per game.
“We had some situations today where we put a sixth defender out on the court just to run around and try and trap and make it a little more chaotic,” Hurley said. “They scramble very well on defense, they rotate very well and have great athletes and length.”
The St. John’s defense benefits from strong interior play, where the Red Storm have already blocked 56 shots this season, seventh-most in the nation.
“We’ve got to be smart when we drive the basket,” Holder said. “But if we play to our strengths and move the ball and shoot open 3’s then we’ll be fine.”
Sophomore guard Shamorie Ponds is St. John’s top scorer, accounting for more than 20 points per game. Between him and Kansas all-conference senior guard Devonte’ Graham (18.6 ppg), the Sun Devils will be facing a couple of the most prolific backcourt talents in the country just a few days apart.
“We’ve been talking a lot about those guys,” Hurley said. “They are two of the better point guards in the United States. We feel like we’ve got some guys here that certainly should be in that conversation.”
Holder is one of those underappreciated guards on Hurley’s roster. The senior compared himself and Ponds – who Holder believes is one of his distant cousins – to be similar players.
“[We’re] both up-tempo guards,” Holder said. “He can shoot it. Both coaches give us a lot of freedom. I see a lot of similarities there.”
After the Friday night game in Southern California, the Sun Devils will have a quick turnaround to fly to Kansas and prepare for the Jayhawks. Their ranked “second round” matchup inside hostile Allen Fieldhouse will tip less than 48 hours after the conclusion of their first game of the weekend.
Aside from the cross-country travel, it’s a challenge that the Sun Devils could face again in March.
“If you would be fortunate to advance in that game (against St. John’s) then you’re looking at an opponent like Kansas that always has something to say about who advances in the tournament,” Hurley said, theorizing the hypothetical progression through his imaginary December tournament.
Another challenge unique to regular season play: facing Kansas’ famous home-court advantage in “the Phog”.
“I played in a lot of tough places and played in Cameron Indoor [Arena] and know what that place is like,” Hurley said. “I’ve been told (Allen Fieldhouse) is every bit that. It should be fun.”
ASU transfer forward Mickey Mitchell will be playing his first game as a Sun Devil in Lawrence on Sunday, after being forced to sit out the first 8 games of the season due to NCAA transfer rules. The former Ohio State player couldn’t have picked an unkinder venue to make his debut in.
“You can’t really prepare for that,” he said. “…You have to be in that situation and figure it out. I’ve been in big arenas before, [but] I haven’t played there.
Holder noted past trips to San Diego State and Arizona as similar road challenges to what his team will face on Sunday. He said the key against Kansas will be “to stay together as a team and stay composed.”
By the time ASU returns to the Valley next week, they will have gained important experience that might be leaned on to ensure their season extends far past the Pac-12 tournament.
Holder Excited for Los Angeles Homecoming
Friday night’s game will carry extra meaning for Holder, who will likely be playing his final collegiate game in his hometown of Los Angeles.
“It’s always great to play in front of friends and family,” he said. “It’s potentially my last time, we’ll see what happens in the future.”
Getting to play in Staples Center will be an added bonus for the Los Angeles Clippers fan and Chris Paul admirer.
“I’ve been in there (Staples Center), I’ve shot around in it, but I’ve never had the opportunity to play [in it],” he said. “I’m going to be super excited.”
Kimani Lawrence making good progress on foot injury
While Mitchell’s introduction into the lineup will boost ASU’s lean rotation, the Sun Devils’ other absent forward, Kimani Lawrence, is still on track for a New Year’s return from a foot injury he suffered during the preseason.
“Kimani is in good spirits,” Hurley said when asked on Wednesday of the freshman’s status. “He’s still a big part of this, being very supportive of what we’ve been doing without playing, and having a good attitude and attacking his recovery.”
Lawrence suffered a stress fracture in his left foot last month, keeping him sidelined for all of ASU’s regular season games thus far. Hurley has noted several times this year how beneficial Lawrence’s and Mitchell’s presence on the floor will be, especially in Pac-12 play.
As of now, it looks like Lawrence’s target return date of late-December/early-January is still expected, according to Hurley: “He’s had no setbacks and he’s progressing nicely.”