Arizona State features some of the same basketball players who produced 10 points in the first half of a game at Utah two seasons ago.
The Sun Devils suddenly look a lot different. They’ve become the Pac-12′s biggest story of the first two months of the 2017-18 season, taking a 12-0 record and a No. 3 ranking into a showcase game at No. 17 Arizona as they begin conference play Saturday.
“We fought through a lot of hard times over the past two years,” ASU coach Bobby Hurley said.
One of those trying moments came in February 2016 at the Huntsman Center, where the Sun Devils trailed 30-2 and 44-10 at various stages of an 81-46 loss to the Utes. Two years later, senior guard Tra Holder, who went scoreless with nine turnovers in that game, is averaging 21.3 points for a team that claims wins over Kansas and Xavier. Holder is the centerpiece of a backcourt that ASU is promoting as “Guard U.”
ASU is averaging 91.8 points and winning by 20.1 points. That’s impressive stuff for a team picked to finish sixth in the Pac-12′s official media poll.
Hurley is doing “as good of a job coaching his team as any coach in the country,” Arizona’s Sean Miller said.
Stanford (6-7), picked fifth, is the biggest disappointment entering conference play. The Cardinal have lost to Eastern Washington and Portland State of the Big Sky Conference. Just about everybody else is in its forecasted range, and the Pac-12 should produce two or three NCAA Tournament teams beyond ASU and Arizona.
ESPN.com’s most recent NCAA Tournament projections were posted before UCLA’s victory over Kentucky in New Orleans and USC’s three wins in the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii. Joe Lunardi listed the Bruins and Trojans among the first four teams out of the field as of last week. Oregon was in the next four out.
UCLA has played through the departure of LiAngelo Ball and the suspensions for the season of two other freshmen after a shoplifting incident during the Bruins’ season-opening trip to China. “Nobody in the country’s traveled more than we have. Nobody’s had the distractions we have had,” coach Steve Alford said after an 83-75 defeat of Kentucky. “And yet these guys have just really stayed close together and they have continued to grow.”
USC and Arizona are playing under the cloud of an FBI probe regarding how since dismissed assistant coaches steered players to agents and allegedly funneled money to players’ families.
Arizona experienced a rough trip to the Bahamas in November, losing to North Carolina State, Southern Methodist and Purdue. The Wildcats (10-3) righted themselves by beating Texas A&M and have the Pac-12′s best collection of talent now that Rawle Alkins is healthy. Allonzo Trier is averaging 21.2 points, and freshman Deandre Ayton is posting 19.5 points and 11.4 rebounds.
The Arizona schools will visit Utah next week after the Utes open conference play at Oregon and Oregon State.
Utah’s 8-3 record “is probably right where we deserve to be,” coach Larry Krystkowiak said, citing issues with turnovers and shot selection. The Utes still are dealing with the medical issues of David Collette, Gabe Bealer, Donnie Tillman and Chris Seeley this week, according to Krystkowiak.
Washington (10-3) is the Pac-12′s biggest mystery in coach Mike Hopkins’ first season. The Huskies, like ASU, beat Kansas on the road. But they lost to Gonzaga by 27 points and stand ninth among conference members in the KenPom.com efficiency rankings.
PAC-12 BASKETBALL PRESEASON MEDIA POLL
6. Arizona State
8. Oregon State
12. Washington State
KENPOM.COM PAC-12 RANKINGS (WITH NATIONAL RANKING)
1. Arizona (14)
2. Arizona State (20)
3. USC (38)
4. Oregon (46)
5. UCLA (52)
6. Utah (59)
7. Stanford (115)
8. Colorado (117)
9. Washington (131)
10. Oregon State (137)
11. Washington State (166)
12. California (178)
DAILY RPI PAC-12 RANKINGS (WITH NATIONAL RANKING)
1. Arizona State (3)
2. Arizona (20)
3. USC (34)
4. UCLA (56)
5. Utah (T57)
6. Washington (64)
7. Oregon, Colorado (T85)
9. Washington State (142)
10. California (174)
11. Oregon State (187)
12. Stanford (200)