There is no rest for the weary. Arizona State’s men’s basketball team faces five consecutive nationally ranked opponents, with the last three coming in just 94 hours. They have every right to be a bit exhausted after surviving and upsetting No. 3 UCLA 87-84 in triple overtime late Saturday night at Desert Financial Arena.
It was only the second time in history that an unranked team knocked out a top-five team in three or more overtimes.
Next comes a 7 p.m. home showdown against rival Arizona (19-2, 9-1), which tops the Pac-12 standings and boasts a No. 7 national ranking. The Wildcats swept UCLA and No. 19 USC last week, so they’re likely to surge in upcoming national polls released on Monday.
Despite Saturday night’s marathon game, senior fullback Marreon Jackson says his team will be ready.
“If you were to attend one of (Coach Bobby) Hurley’s training with us, you would know how much we run, in the summer, never been part of a program that works so well,” he said. “We’re definitely fit. We’re ready. He made sure of that.”
This was not the season Hurley envisioned when the season training started. Sophomore forward Marcus Bagley, one of three returning players from last year, has been out since Nov. 15 with a persistent knee problem.
Jackson struggled early to find the form that won him the Mid-American Conference Player of the Year honor last season in Toledo. He attributes this to a wrist injury he suffered early on, but says he finally feels good again.
There were far more setbacks than wins, with the first coming in Game 2 of the season when ASU lost to UC Riverside 66-65 on a three-quarter buzzer push.
ASU went 0-3 at Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas and didn’t look good doing it.
Then came the disastrous performance against Washington State in the conference opener in which the Sun Devils scored a miniscule 29 points.
There were a handful of games called off, with COVID issues from opponents, and then the Sun Devils had to shut down.
The 2020-2021 season has been difficult and the news did not look much better.
The Sun Devils have made great strides over the past three weeks despite not necessarily appearing in the win column. Hurley hopes Jackson’s 24-point performance against the Bruins will be a boost for good things to come.
“The adversity has been well documented and what they’ve been through, but they haven’t given it all up and they’ve really stayed the course and keep trying to improve,” Hurley said. “Nobody exemplifies that more than Marreon Jackson and just so happy to see him come through and make big plays throughout the game and have that kind of feeling that he has right now and because he had so much expectations and he is, there’s nobody working harder in our program, so it’s just great that at this point he’s done like that.”
The Sun Devils entered Saturday’s game having lost seven of the last eight with the only win in that streak over lowly Utah on Jan. 17.
It was then the next match in which the Sun Devils seemed to turn a corner. They lost to Stanford on the road 79-76 in the infamous game in which the Cardinal shot 41 free throws against ASU’s nine.
Then came a 78-56 loss at USC in which ASU got off to a good start, only to fade. Then came the 67-56 loss to Arizona at McKale Center a week ago in which ASU held the Wildcats 20 points below their season average score.
On Thursday, ASU lost to USC 58-53, that game tied for the last time with 1:05 to go.
Hurley had said the best play in those games was a moral victory, but he was glad his team finally had something to show for their efforts.
“It would have been tough if I came back here and we didn’t get the win,” he said, speaking to the media moments after UCLA’s win. “But the morale in the dressing room at the moment is amazing because we know we don’t back up the wins one way or another – like, we win those games and we’ve been very competitive in those games against elite teams and we have So breaking through and winning will hopefully build confidence as we continue.
Defense has become the hallmark of ASU and everyone knows that kind of effort will be needed to keep the momentum going. The offense appears to be shaping up, with the emergence of insider threats in Kimani Lawrence and Jalen Graham catching the attention of opponents and paving the way for shooters such as Jackson and DJ Horne.
Among the encouraging signs of the recent win was a tally of 18 assists from 29 field goals. ASU only turned the ball over 11 times in 55 minutes, a remarkable number considering the caliber of the opponent who also pride themselves on defending.
Along comes another formidable foe in Arizona, whose only losses were to UCLA 75-59 at Pauley Pavilion on Jan. 25 and Tennessee 77-73 on the road on Dec. 22. He had impressive victories over Michigan and Illinois in non-conference play.
The Wildcats have four players with a double-digit average in Bennedict Mathurin (16.5 ppg, 6 rpg), Azuolas Tublis (14.4 ppg, 6.3 rpg), Christian Koloko (12.5 ppg, 7.3 rpg ) and Kerr Kriisa (11 pg). Mathurin is a top contender for Conference Player of the Year honors while Koloko is perhaps the most improved player in the conference.
Jackson feels his team is starting to solidify and says the players’ trust in each other hasn’t wavered.
“We’ve played well all season,” he said. “Everything is starting to fall into place. Our attack, we are starting to have a rhythm. We had 11 new guys with two months to play together. I don’t know what people expected. But we stayed together. It’s just us. Lots of outside noise and all that, but we stayed together.
“There were a lot of games this season where there were just two or three games left where we could have won, and we just built,” Jackson said. “All of that out there is just building character for games like this and hopefully we’ll build from that game and start racing, keep it up.”
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