Even by the Pac-12’s standards, this is a gut punch.
Why is Arizona State’s 96-86 loss to Utah on Thursday night in Tempe so frustrating? One must start with an explanation of the Sun Devils’ position in a much larger historical context.
Arizona State isn’t used to being an NCAA Tournament contender. The school has enjoyed periods of prosperity in the past, but annual NCAA relevance is not a consistent feature of this program’s history. Arizona State has made consecutive NCAA Tournament periods in only two clusters of time: 1961-1964, a four-year streak, and 1980-1981, a two-season run, both under iconic coach Ned Wulk. (A player on that 1981 ASU team: Byron Scott.)
When a program isn’t used to making the NCAAs in consecutive seasons, and a culture of excellence hasn’t quite filtered into every aspect of daily existence, certain stumbling blocks and demons linger. The program needs to smash through those sources of frustration to truly know that it has arrived and is ready to become a program which will make the Big Dance each season, including some mid-tier or high seeds, and some first-weekend wins.
The foremost hope at the moment for a program such as Arizona State is not to contend for Final Fours every year — that is not a realistic expectation just yet; it requires several years of building before the conversation can change. ASU’s currently attainable ambition is to regularly make NCAA Tournaments and parlay that series of Dance cards into a Sweet 16 once every few years. From that collection of March appearances and wins might come the perfect storm in terms of recruiting, which can lead to a Final Four run in the future.
This is how Lute Olson transformed the school just over 100 miles southeast of the Arizona State campus: the University of Arizona. Lute came to Tucson in 1983, took his lumps in Year 1, and didn’t win a single NCAA Tournament game in the next three seasons… but he did make the NCAAs in those three seasons. By Year 5, Arizona had clearly crossed the threshold relative to annual NCAA Tournament appearances. The Wildcats expected to make the field each year, and they did.
In that fifth season — 1988 — Arizona made its first Final Four. For the next two decades, Arizona made every NCAA Tournament without interruption, collecting a national title and three more Final Fours.
Arizona State and Bobby Hurley, if compared to Lute and Arizona, are in January of 1986. This was the season after the U of A’s first NCAA Tournament trip under Olson in 1985. That 1986 season was crucial for Arizona because it began to cement an NCAA tourney culture in Tucson. Getting used to the process and the fulfillment of making the Big Dance each year begins to change how players think of themselves. One recruiting class is able to pass on the lessons of greatness to the next, and the program then takes off.
Arizona State sorely needs to get back to the NCAAs this season, to reinforce expectations and convince players they are ready to take the next step in future years. The profoundly irritating and worrying dimension of a 10-point home-court loss to a mediocre Utah team (7-6 on the season, with no high-end wins) is that it shows how little Arizona State learned from last season.
Remember: Arizona State didn’t just beat Kansas this season; the Sun Devils did the same deed last season. Moreover, last season’s ASU group also beat Xavier, another No. 1 seed. The Devils were 12-0 heading into Pac-12 play. Their first league game was at Arizona, which was a No. 4 NCAA seed last season, so that was hardly a bad loss.
Then, however, the losses kept coming.
Arizona State split its next 10 Pac-12 games after the Arizona loss, all in the same pattern: loss, win, loss, win, loss, win, loss, win, loss win. ASU then broke from the L-W pattern to win two consecutive games… only to then crater down the stretch by losing five of six.
When the Pac-12 Tournament had ended, Arizona State — in a bad Pac-12 which didn’t win a single NCAA Tournament game and placed only one team in the round of 64 — had gone 8-11 in the league, 8-10 in the 18-game regular season followed by a first-round Pac-12 Tournament exit at the hands of Colorado. ASU didn’t just struggle against the Pac-12; it struggled against one of the worse iterations of the Pac-12 in recent memory.
This season’s Pac-12, as everyone knows, is CLEARLY WORSE than last season’s Pac-12!
The hard-to-comprehend part of it all: Arizona State repeated its win over Kansas! The Sun Devils once again built up their resume before Christmas Day. They once again showed considerable room to grow and develop…
… and yet as soon as they hit the Pac-12, they didn’t evolve. They let a 16-point lead turn into a decisive loss at home against an opponent, Utah, which is muddling through its season near the .500 mark.
Hurley — who needs to put together a complete season at ASU before he can be taken seriously as a top-tier candidate for bigger jobs (such as UCLA) — was evidently frustrated after this Utah loss.
“It’s like Groundhog Day,” he said, directly referring to last year’s regression in Pac-12 play after doing so well in non-conference competition.
When Arizona State beat Kansas for the second time in as many seasons — the Jayhawks are very likely to be a No. 1 seed this season, just as they were last season and normally are in general — the Sun Devils showed that by replicating a massive feat, they had retained the winning DNA they began to develop last season, but couldn’t translate into a full wire-to-wire product. Arizona State was fortunate to make the First Four last March in Dayton, but the huge non-conference wins made the Devils’ inclusion in the field of 68 entirely justified.
Beating Kansas again set the stage for ASU’s second chance, the chance to get it right in January instead of falling off the map.
The shocking home loss to Princeton, followed by this even more stinging defeat at the hands of Utah, creates a very familiar reality for Arizona State. A December filled with so much hope inside a locker room — and defined by so much excitement in the greater Phoenix area — has once again given way to a bewildering letdown at the start of the Pac-12 season. ASU clearly didn’t learn its lesson — not yet.
Lute Olson and the 1986 Arizona team know that 2019 ASU has a long way to go.
Here, though, is the most urgent point every Sun Devil player must absorb: This Pac-12 Conference simply won’t give Arizona State any real resume boosts. Oregon had the highest KenPom rating in the Pac-12 — and the only one in the top 50 — as of Thursday night (36). With the Ducks losing Bol Bol for the rest of the season, they will likely become a much weaker team.
Arizona State has to realize that a 12-6 record against this particular Pac-12 means a lot of empty-calorie wins and six damaging losses. If ASU wants to feel good about itself on Selection Sunday, a 14-4 run through the 18-game Pac-12 regular season, plus two wins in the Pac-12 Tournament, will probably be enough. Yet, this loss to Utah suggests that Arizona State is going to struggle with the Pac for the next two and a half months. ASU might not go 8-11 (including the league tournament) as it did last year, but even an 11-8 or 12-7 finish will damage this team’s resume, possibly to the point of exclusion, if it fails to win the Pac-12 Tournament.
ASU — it is widely agreed — is the only Pac-12 team with a realistic shot at an at-large NCAA bid. Winning 16 of the next 19 games — or something very close to that — might be needed to do the deed.
It makes you wonder why the Sun Devils lost the plot on Thursday at home against Utah.
This team is its own greatest source of bedevilment in Tempe.
Groundhog Day needs to end, and give way to a new attitude in the Valley of the Sun.
Arizona State hasn’t crossed the threshold.
Even a bunch of Devils can have a hellish time building the world they want.
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