TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona State was one of college basketball's biggest surprises during the 2017-18 season, rising to No. 3 in the AP Top 25 and making the NCAA Tournament for the first time in four years.The Sun Devils' run came a year ahead of their coach's schedule.
"I looked at it like this was going to be the year," Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley said Wednesday.
"Maybe before last season, I had a pretty good suspicion we would exceed expectations of what people thought, but really deep down this was the year with having the size in the front court and having a high-level recruiting class."
Led by senior guards Tra Holder, Shannon Evans II and Kodi Justice, Arizona State knocked off Kansas and Xavier while putting together the first undefeated non-conference schedule in school history. The Sun Devils had a little more trouble when the Pac-12 season started, but their resume was good enough to earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament, where they lost to Syracuse in the first round.
The senior trio is gone to graduation, but there's plenty left in the cupboard at Arizona State.
Dynamic point guard Remy Martin is back after a stellar freshman season, ready to take the reins of Arizona State's offense. The big men who complemented the senior guards also return, led by Romello White and De'Quon Lake. The Sun Devils also will have forwards Mickey Mitchell and Kimani Lawrence for the entire season.
Arizona State should get a big boost from transfers Zylan Cheatham (San Diego State) and Rob Edwards (Cleveland State), who know Hurley's system after practicing with the team while sitting out last season.
Add to it a stellar recruiting class by Hurley, led by five-star forward Taeshon Cherry, and the Sun Devils should be in position for the program's first consecutive NCAA Tournaments since 1978-80.
"We lose three guys that were critical to what we did, very key players to what we're building, but we're replacing them with six guys that are very capable," Hurley said. "Last year we were under the radar, especially initially ... but the secret's out. We have good players, we had a great season last year and we've got to make sure we're ready to do it again."
Out of necessity, Hurley played a guard-oriented style his first few years in Tempe, often with four guards on the court at the same time. It worked when Holder, Evans and Justice were making shots, but a lack of size inside limited what the Sun Devils could do and led to matchup problems.
The additions of White and Lake last season helped even things up for Arizona State inside, but there were still size issues once the Pac-12 season started.
Next season's roster will give Hurley more lineup options.
The Sun Devils will be bigger, not just inside, but at the guard spots. Martin is 6-foot, but Edwards and Canadian freshman Luguentz Dort are 6-4, and Finnish freshman Elias Valtonen is 6-6. And Uros Plavsic, an active 7-footer from Serbia, gives Arizona State the type of inside presence it hasn't had in years.
"The way our roster is constructed and built this year, we're going to be bigger even at the guard positions," Hurley said. "We have real good size at the wing positions. We're just going have more options, more depth."
With that size may come a change in the way the Sun Devils play.
Summer Grind March Shine pic.twitter.com/2AaNDvDwqr— Sun Devil MBB (@SunDevilHoops) June 14, 2018
Holder, Evans, Justice and Martin played a high-energy, sharpshooting game, so Hurley tailored the offense to their skills. Arizona State took 41 percent of its shots from 3-point range, making 36 percent.
Now that the Sun Devils have size inside, Hurley may go to more of an inside-out offense rather than the other way around.
"This year's roster gives me a ton of options to play a lot of different ways," Hurley said. "I could see scenarios where there's five guys 6-7 or bigger, which I've never had."
The Sun Devils will have a new look, but appear to be ready to take another step in Hurley's rebuilding project.