The Oregon Trail is a place where many brave and bold men, American explorers in search of a larger world, encountered supreme success and crushing, devastating failure. What kind of a coach is Bobby Hurley, the leader of the Arizona State Sun Devils? We might get the most defining answer to that question this week. Los Diablos Del Sol are headed for the state of Oregon.
It is not easy to make sense of Arizona State or its resume. This Pac-12 season hasn’t been as bad for ASU as last season, when the Sun Devils finished under .500 in conference play. However, this Pac-12 is clearly a lot worse than last season. The 2018 Pac-12 had a legitimately strong team — Arizona — and three bubble-level teams, with Arizona State and UCLA getting into the First Four while USC was left out with an RPI of 34, the highest for any Power 5 team not included in the NCAA Tournament.
This year’s Pac-12 has one clear at-large-worthy team (Washington) and one bubble team, Arizona State. ASU’s wins over Kansas and Mississippi State are significant and represent more achievements than a number of other bubble teams have forged. However, ASU also lost at home to Princeton, stumbled at Vanderbilt — a result which keeps getting worse — and has hardly flourished in Pac-12 play. The Devils are above .500, but no one should be awarded a medal for going 10-5 in this iteration of the Pac-12.
USC missed the NCAAs last year despite going 12-6 in the Pac AND making the Pac-12 Tournament final. This year’s Pac, as already established, is worse than last year’s version. That is a good way of expressing how mediocre ASU’s resume is.
One other detail, however, captures the fuller picture here. This is where the Oregon Trail — two visits to the Oregon schools this week — becomes a defining point in this ASU season and Hurley’s coaching career.
Maybe Arizona State will get in the NCAA Tournament with a mere split at the Oregon schools. It’s possible. ASU could win at Arizona the following week, grab two wins in the Pac-12 Tournament, and be good enough to make the field as an at-large team. Sure. That is hardly unrealistic.
However, if I am evaluating the Sun Devils, and if I was on the Selection Committee, my view of this complicated and confusing team would be fairly simple: CAN YOU GET A ROAD SWEEP?
People in the West know this, but just to be clear for those of you in other parts of the country, Pac-12 basketball is arranged in two-game sequences with four-team clusters (minus the in-state or in-area rivalry games, in which case teams play just one game per week).
The two Washington schools will play the two San Francisco Bay Area schools this weekend. USC and UCLA will play one game, and Utah and Colorado — the mountain schools — play one game. This leaves the Arizona schools to play the Oregon schools.
In the 2018 Pac-12 season and the first 15 games of the 2019 Pac-12 season, Arizona State and Hurley have not yet recorded a single road sweep in these two-game road trips. ASU didn’t notch a single road sweep last year, and it didn’t record one this year.
The easiest road trip in the Pac-12 this year is the Bay Area road trip, with California being an unusually awful — and beatable — team on its home floor. Arizona State beat Cal but lost to Stanford. ASU beat UCLA but couldn’t handle USC. It solved Utah in Salt Lake City but was Buffaloed in Boulder. Now the Devils journey to Eugene on Thursday and Corvallis on Sunday. Their dates with the Oregon Ducks and Oregon State Beavers give Los Diablos one final chance to notch a road sweep in the Pac-12.
Oregon and Oregon State are not terrible teams. Both are likely to go to the NIT unless they can win the Pac-12 Tournament. Yet, being an NIT-level Pac-12 team THIS YEAR — when the whole league sans Washington has been disappointing — carries an extra degree of pain.
You’re telling me Arizona State can’t get a road sweep in this league, this year, in these circumstances?
I am not on the Selection Committee, but to me, if ASU can’t get a road sweep, it doesn’t deserve an at-large bid. It could make the Pac-12 final and I still wouldn’t be impressed enough to change my mind.
Bobby Hurley could become a great coach. Heck, if you put him at Duke, he might be great regardless of his current and past struggles. Nevertheless, if Hurley wants to begin to change perceptions about him and his program, Arizona State will get a road sweep on the Oregon Trail.
It should not be too much to ask — not in the Pac-12 of 2019.
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