Arizona State men’s basketball peaks as regular season draws to a close

Arizona State’s men’s basketball team had every reason to fall into the Pac-12 abyss. The Sun Devils were coming off one of their best games of the season, but suffered a 79-76 road loss to Stanford to drop to 6-10 overall and 2-4 in conference. And the next step for coach Bobby Hurley’s team was a five game streak against nationally ranked teams.

The Sun Devils (12-16, 8-10) have stayed the course and found new life as the regular season heads into the final week. ASU, which has won five of its last six games, hosts California (12-17, 5-13) at 6 p.m. Thursday and finishes with Stanford (15-13, 8-10) at 1 p.m. Saturday at Desert Financial arena.

Both games will be broadcast on the Pac-12 network.

Hurley called this Stanford match a criticism. It was the one in which the opponent had 41 free throws against ASU with Hurley’s parting words for the officials, which forced him to sit out the next game against USC, the first of this series of games against the conference elite.

While ASU lost four of those five, it earned a triple overtime win at home to then-No. 3 UCLA and played more competitively in the other losses.

“Just based on how it happened and what might have happened if we hadn’t handled it the right way at the time,” Hurley said of the pivotal point. . “It just shows the courage and the determination of the group that we stuck together and we realized it was a winning game that didn’t go our way and we had things to deal with afterwards, but I thought it was was the one where we showed a lot more resilience.”

After that road loss at USC, Hurley met with athletic director Ray Anderson and received a vote of confidence that he was going to be the coach going forward. After the appalling performance a year ago and the rocky start to the new season, there had been speculation in social media circles that the coach’s days might be numbered.

But the Sun Devils weathered the turmoil and are playing their best basketball of the season at the right time.

Hurley said his team needed to play until the competition to survive and that helped build confidence.

“We had the stretch where we really tested, playing top of the league pretty much every game. It kind of took our level of performance to a different place, just playing that type of competition. You’re basing or you crumble in this storm you’re in or you find a way to improve and I think we’ve done that. All of the adversity has put us in a position where we’re playing good basketball,” Hurley said.

Players say getting into a routine has helped and with so many newcomers it just took time.

“It wasn’t always easy, especially with guys who didn’t know each other a few months ago,” Kimani Lawrence said. “It’s a testament to the character these guys have. We could have mailed it out and the guys could have started watching next year, but it’s a testament to the type of people he brought in in the program.”

Some impressive victories followed.

He beat Washington State in Pullman after the Cougars won five of six games.

ASU beat Oregon 81-57 ​​after the Ducks won 11 of their previous 13.

He’s coming off a mountain school sweep, highlighted by an 82-67 victory over a Colorado team that had won five in a row.

This week’s opponents aren’t on the level of those ASU has dealt with recently. Cal is 10th, losing 12 of its last 15 games. He also lost second top scorer Andre Kelly to a season-ending injury.

Stanford, currently tied with ASU for eighth place, has lost five of its last six and is coming off a 53-39 loss to Cal.

The Sun Devils will likely enter the Pac-12 tournament at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas next week with considerable momentum. ASU seemed destined for an eighth or ninth seed, which would have meant a game at noon when the tournament opened on Wednesday.

But Hurley’s team could clinch the No. 7 spot, which would be preferential because if they did, they’d avoid a meeting with conference regular-season champion Arizona until the Finals. of the tournament. To claim the No. 7 spot, ASU must win both of its games this week and cause Washington State to lose to either Oregon or Oregon State.

The No. 7 seed would open play at 6 p.m. Wednesday, likely against Cal.

Hurley appreciated the character his team showed.

“I think the guys know that we are capable of playing at the highest level in our league. We saw the top teams and we were able to be super competitive or win in those games,” Hurley said. “We’re playing the best we’ve played all year, but that won’t guarantee us anything next week, so we’ll have to finish this week as best we can and prepare for that.”

“We have people playing better, so there’s a better vibe,” Hurley said. “There’s a confidence in what we’re doing and the guys believe we can do something special.”

The players agree.

“Regardless of our losses, we didn’t just fold. We always competed and tried to play hard. This translates to now. Our attack has started to click and we are still playing strong, competing in defence. It’s good to see,” Lawrence said.

Lawrence tops the list

Super senior Kimani Lawrence now tops ASU’s career list for games played with 133-plus. This exceeds the previous mark of 132 by Jon Gilling (2011-2015).

“He’s a friend at this point,” Hurley said. “We just spent so much time together and built this relationship. Just huge confidence in him, in his leadership and in what he’s been doing all year. He’s a guy who likes to do what a lot of other guys don’t want to do, so it’s unique to have a guy who plays as hard as he does, engages in all the dirty work and things that help you win. He talks about it.”

In an era where the transfer portal allows players to see more playing time elsewhere, Lawrence has remained faithful through injuries, shooting drops and even having to play a more low-key role.

“A lot of guys today transfer a lot everywhere, but just being able to stay here and finish what I started means a lot to me,” Lawrence said. “As I said before, the fans have embraced me. The team have embraced me so it means a lot that I can show them the same loyalty that they have shown me.

Contact the reporter at [email protected] or 602 444-4783. Follow her on Twitter @MGardnerSports.