Arizona State ready for next step under Hurley
TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) Expectations for Arizona State are not exactly high in Bobby Hurley's second season. Despite having what could be one of the conference's best backcourts, the Sun Devils were picked to finish 11th in the Pac-12.
Hurley doesn't want to hear it.
Buffalo was picked to be among the worst teams in the Mid-American Conference in Hurley's second season there and the Bulls went on to win the conference, earning a trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Despite the Sun Devils' shortcomings this season, Hurley sees no reason to set the bar low in Tempe.
''I think we're as good as anybody,'' Hurley said. ''That's going to put some pressure on my guys to live up to that. But I think they're more than capable.''
Hurley's first season got off to a fantastic start, with Arizona State entering Pac-12 play at 10-3 after wins over Creighton and UNLV. The Sun Devils fell flat in conference, finishing 5-13 and 15-17 overall.
A big issue last season was that Hurley wanted the Sun Devils to push the pace, but he had a roster full of recruits from the previous coach, Herb Sendek.
This season, Hurley has more of his players on the team, so the pace should pick up.
Orchestrating it will be what should be one of the Pac-12's - if not the nation's - top backcourts.
Junior Tra Holder has already established himself as one of the conference's best guards in two seasons at Arizona State and Hurley has been impressed with his leadership during the offseason. Holder averaged 14.2 points and 3.7 assists in 2015-16.
Joining Holder will be Shannon Evans, a transfer who sat out last season after following Hurley from Buffalo.
The 6-foot-1 junior averaged 15.4 points and 4.6 points as a sophomore with the Bulls and Hurley says adding him will be like having a McDonald's All-American join the team.
''He's like a volcano that's building up for him. That guy's got so much passion and energy and it was all bottled up last year,'' Hurley said. ''He did it on the practice floor and helped Tra get ready to play just by how good he was on the practice court, but the kid wants to play so bad. I think I'm going to have to calm him down the first few games especially because he's going to be so amped to play.''
A few more things to look for from the Sun Devils in 2016-17:
FRONTCOURT DEPTH: Guard play and perimeter scoring will be Arizona State's obvious strength. The obvious weakness: Frontcourt depth. The Sun Devils lost seniors Willie Atwood and Eric Jacobsen and Savon Goodman opted to transfer, leaving the Sun Devils thin on the front line. Versatile Obinna Oleka is back, but the rest of the frontcourt will be filled with young, inexperienced players. Romello White, a 6-8 freshman, was expected to provide a lift, but did not meet academic requirements and will sit out as an academic redshirt. Another freshman, 6-9 Vitaliy Shibel, tore his ACL and will not play this season.
OLEKA'S ROLE: A junior college transfer, Oleka was Arizona State's most versatile player last season, able to shoot from the perimeter or mix it up on the inside. The 6-7 senior can play both forward positions, allowing Hurley to mix and match his lineup depending on what the teams needs. Oleka averaged 9.6 points and 6.1 rebounds last season, numbers that will likely increase this season as the Sun Devils rely on him more.
CUNLIFFE ARRIVES: Hurley has hit the recruiting trail hard in a short time at ASU, landing a top-25 class last year. The marquee player in that group is guard Sam Cunliffe, the Sun Devils' highest-rated recruit since James Harden in 2007. A solid 6-7, Cunliffe can get to the rim and elevate over smaller plays to get his jump shot off. Fellow freshmen Jethro Tshisumpa from Congo and Spaniard Ramon Villa also will likely see plenty of playing time, particularly with Arizona State's lack of frontcourt depth.
JUSTICE RETURNS: Kodi Justice, a key player in Arizona State's guard rotation, should play an even bigger role this season. The 6-5 junior can play both guard positions and provides an instant energy boost when he enters the game. Justice made a team-high 60 3-pointers last season while averaging 7.9 points per game.