Before the Colorado Buffaloes play their final home game, we wanted to catch up with another team having a wild year in the face of COVID-19 - the Arizona State Sun Devils. In contrast to the Buffs, which have avoided every pothole that comes along with a pandemic this year, ASU has missed plenty of games and lost plenty of players along the way. They are now semi-healthy and energized, and come to Boulder with something to prove.
I talked to Jack Johnson of House of Sparky, our sister site that does great work covering the Sun Devils, to get some more insight on this team.
1. Let’s start with the obvious question – The Sun Devils were picked 2nd in the conference in the pre-season this year. What happened?
First, I’d like to start by saying how much I truly enjoy the name ‘Ralphie Report.’ One of the better ones I have seen out of our SB Nation sites.
Now, to answer your question. You’re right, it’s obvious. It almost glares at you when you look at it. The Sun Devils were picked by anyone with college hoops credibility to contend for the PAC-12 title this season. As I’m writing this, the team currently sits eighth in the conference standings with a record of 7-8.
So what happened? First and foremost, COVID-19 has wrecked a lot of programs this year, but I would argue the Sun Devils have been hurt as bad as any. They have had eight games either postponed or cancelled this season, half due to opponent’s issues with COVID-19, and have had to take two extended breaks because of issues. Those breaks have seemingly come right around when the team is generating positive momentum.
The first, excuse if you will, is conduit to this particular season. The second reason as to why the Sun Devils have underachieved is extremely common. Injuries have ravaged this roster. The Sun Devils have yet to field a full roster this season, starters Josh Christopher and Marcus Bagley have missed extended time recently. Bagley might return tonight, but Christopher will be out again with a back injury suffered against Oregon.
2. Bobby Hurley recruited very well in the past few years, capped off with Josh Christopher. Has that panned out and who leads the team next year in the absence of Remy Martin?
He has recruited incredibly well, and this 2020 class was the magnum opus of Bobby Hurley’s recruiting career. Two top-30 nationally ranked recruits in Josh Christopher and Marcus Bagley landed the Sun Devils eighth in the national rankings.
It’s panned out alright. It’s hard to make a complete judgement on Bagley and Christopher when they have played such little time together on the court this season. Bagley has dealt with an ankle injury since a Jan. 30 win over Stanford. As I mentioned before, Christopher suffered a hard fall against Oregon that has put him on the sidelines. In their time on the court, however, they have justified their remarkable talent and will likely move on to the NBA Draft at the conclusion of this season.
As you might expect, this Sun Devil roster will therefore look much different next season. Gone are seniors Remy Martin and Alonzo Verge Jr. In their wake, look for current sophomores Jaelen House and Jalen Graham to step up. If there is a silver lining to all these injuries, it’s that Jaelen and Jalen have seen more time than expected in their development.
3. Arizona State is a smaller, guard-oriented team this year. How would you describe their interior defense and rebounding?
It hasn’t been great. But the emergence of Graham on the low block has started to turn things around. In the same breath, Kimani Lawrence has become a new man in recent weeks, highlighted by a 21 point, 20 rebound performance a week ago against Washington.
But because of their consistent height disadvantage, rebounding has been one of the top points of struggle for the Sun Devils this season.
4. The Sun Devils have stacked up guards who can fill it up quickly, between Martin and Alonzo Verge and at times, Jaelen House. Who are the offensive names to watch out for?
You just mentioned the two to watch out for: Martin and Verge. Remy is especially someone to watch out for because he enters this game scorching hot with eight straight games with 20 or more points, and I expect him to continue that tonight.
House is on the rise, but he’s yet to really fill up the stat sheet yet. But watching him race down the court at 100 MPH is definitely worth tuning in for.
Lawrence has had a hot stretch, and his increased playing time and increased production are definitely correlated. I would continue to watch the development of Graham, he might be the difference tonight if the Sun Devils win, he can post up, and his range is getting further and further away from the basket.
5. Colorado fans have a small rivalry with Martin, through no fault of his own. Buff fans feel like Remy Martin got the accolades that McKinley Wright deserved going into this year. As their careers come to a close, how would you compare the two stars?
This is interesting. I have to be honest, I didn’t know this rivalry existed. But it does make sense. Bill Walton showers Remy Martin with as much love as teenage girls gave the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. You don’t hear him talk about McKinley Wright as much.
With that said, while the national media may overlook Wright, don’t think that applies to Sun Devil fans. They certainly recognize Wright as a special player, one of the greatest in recent Pac-12 history.
Like Wright, Martin is one of the all-time greatest players in the history of the ASU program. Their styles are a little different, Wright isn’t the scorer that Martin is, but Martin is probably not close to Wright’s level of playmaking.
The contrast is stark, but the impact is similar, I can’t wait to watch these two greats battle it out again tonight.