Building a winning basketball program at Arizona State is more challenging than it seems. Is Bobby Hurley up for the challenge?
Former Buffalo coach Bobby Hurley will replace Herb Sendek, who was dismissed late in March. In his second year leading the Bulls, Hurley guided them to their first NCAA tournament appearance ever. Sendek finished his career with a 159-137 record, but nine years with only one NCAA tournament win wasn’t good enough in the eyes of the athletic department.
Now Hurley gets the chance to do better. But he will soon learn that this is not an easy job, in large part because of the challenges of recruiting.
Schools tend to have advantages in their own states. The problem for Sendek and every coach that came before him is that high school basketball in Arizona has just never been very good. Only 12 Arizona-born players have ever made it to the NBA, with half of them failing to play 100 games in the league.
Defenders of Arizona high school basketball point to the success of Mike Bibby, who starred at Shadow Mountain High School in Phoenix, before helping the University of Arizona win a national championship in 1997. He was drafted second in the 1998 NBA draft and played 14 years in the NBA.
But Bibby’s career has been the exception. Since he made the All Pac-10 team in 1998, only 10 players from the state of Arizona have made the all-conference team. Of those, only four—Channing Frye (Arizona), Jerryd Bayless (Arizona), Carrick Felix (Arizona State) and Nick Johnson (Arizona)—made the NBA.
When a star does come through the local high school ranks and wants to stay in state, it’s tough for ASU to compete with its rival. The University of Arizona, perennially one of the best basketball programs in the country, is the more popular choice.
Arizona basketball has made 11 Elite Eight appearances, four trips to the Final Four, two national title games and won one championship. ASU made it to the Sweet 16 once.
“There weren’t very many players in the state who were Pac-10 players, and the few that were—the Richard Jeffersons and Michael Bibbys and Channing Fryes—were going to Arizona,” former Sun Devils coach Rob Evans said. “It was very challenging to try to get players in the state.”
Evans, who is now an associate head coach at North Texas, led ASU from 1998 to 2006, compiling a 116-117 record in his eight years. His best Pac-10 finish was fourth, in the 2002-03 season. He had coached Mississippi before ASU, and when he left the Rebels, he did not see in ASU a team doomed to second place behind Arizona forever.
“A lot of people told me it was a mirage in the desert,” he said. “But I didn't feel that way and I still don’t feel that way now.”
So how has Arizona, which also must deal with the lack of in-state elite talent, made back-to-back trips to the Elite Eight? Part of its success comes from its facility. In addition to all the banners that hang from McKale Center, the arena recently underwent a $30 million renovation and has a 13-year sellout streak. ASU’s practice facility, the $22 million Weatherup Center, was completed in 2009. But the Sun Devils’ Wells Fargo Arena has not been renovated since opening in 1974.
Kyle Dodd was an ASU guard from 1999 to 2003 and currently works as a radio analyst for the team. When he played, ASU had cement walls and red seats in the arena, and that was about it. The school has since added some color to the venue, but Dodd said the arena is a factor in recruiting.
“Kids are all into gear and swag and being able to play at the state-of-the-art place and ASU has all those things in their practice facility and weight room and locker rooms,” Dodd said. “But the arena could use an upgrade or a facelift.”
But former coach Bill Frieder doesn't blame the arena. The coach from 1989 to 1997 doesn’t blame the lack of high school talent or Arizona’s success, either. Frieder blames the administration.
“In my estimation, they’ve just done nothing in basketball to create tradition or create continuity,” Frieder said. “It’s always been fire the coach, then fire the (athletic director) then fire another coach.”
Frieder pointed out the pattern. In 1997 new athletic director Kevin White fired Frieder and hired Evans. In 2006 new athletic director Lisa Love fired Evans and hired Sendek. Then in 2014, new athletic director Ray Anderson fired Sendek.
“They take the easy way out and fire somebody rather than work with that person and trying to get the job done,” Frieder said. “If I would have been the AD at ASU and I’m not completely satisfied with the program, I would determine in my mind what’s wrong with the program and call Herb Sendek in and say ‘Hey, I love you as a person, you're a great coach you do a good job on this, you do a good on that, but we’re not satisfied with the recruiting. How can we help you?’”
On a national scale, ASU’s basketball program does not have the prestige its baseball or football programs do. Since ASU joined the Pac-10 in 1978, no coach has had a sustained run of success and Sendek’s second-place finish in the Pac-12 in 2009-10 was the team’s best since 1981. In fact, since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, that Sun Devil team was the only one to finish in sole possession of second place in the Pac-12 and not make the tournament. It’s not an easy job, and despite the criticism Sendek received, he may be the most successful coach in program history—his 159 wins were the most since Ned Wulk, who completed his tenure in 1982.
When athletic director Ray Anderson began his search for Sendek’s replacement, he said he wanted a dynamic recruiter. He hopes to have found that man in Hurley.
Hurley said the biggest key to recruiting will be his staff. He is retaining assistant Stan Johnson from the previous regime and said ASU plans to expand its brand everywhere, not just the Southwest. He did well in the Midwest when he was at Buffalo, and it’s almost a necessity to touch California now.
“We are going to recruit nationally,” Hurley said. “We are not just going to limit ourselves to any areas of the country.”
Hurley, a former star point guard at Duke, has been successful in his short tenure as a head coach. He took Buffalo from a 14-20 record the year be fore he arrived to a 23-10 finish last season.
“If we’re going to do this, it needs to be a collective effort,” Dodd said. “We all have to say, hey, Arizona State basketball needs to mean something. We need to all do our part to get it to where it could be.
“It starts with the coach.”
Justin Emerson is a junior at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. This story is the product of a partnership between the Cronkite School and Sports Illustrated.