After watching the Arizona State men’s and women’s lopsided basketball losses to top-ranked teams last week, it begs the question as to whether the Sun Devils will be a serious national contender any time in the near future.
The problem seems to be taking play to the next level – not just playing against the best teams, but being able to play with the best teams. Even if you can’t beat them every time.
The men’s team lost last week to No. 1 University of Arizona in a game in which they never threatened the Wildcats, trailing their in-state rivals by double digits the entire game and eventually succumbing to an inevitable 91-68 defeat. The women’s team took on No. 4 Stanford and stayed relevant for the first six minutes or so before the Cardinal pulled away for good and nailed down a 24-point victory, 80-56, against a Sun Devil team that shot just 32 percent from the floor.
OK, so there’s no shame in losing to the top men’s team in the country, and certainly no shame in dropping a game to Stanford, one of the best women’s teams year-in and year-out. But you can’t get thumped by more than 20 points and expect to get any respect.
The ASU men were un-ranked going into the game with Arizona, but are a team that held high hopes for a season that would find them back in the NCAA Tournament with a roster solid enough to get them past the first of round or two. They have 13 wins so far and head coach Herb Sendek needs to win just half of their remaining games to post another 20-win season.
But last year they had 22 wins and were still passed over for a bid to the Big Dance and wound up in the NIT. Why? A lack of enough quality wins to impress the selection committee.
Meanwhile, the women appear to be over-achieving. They were picked in the pre-season coaches’ poll to finish 10th in the Pac-12. Going in against Stanford, they were ranked No. 14 (AP Top 25) in the country. But now you have to question the validity of that lofty ranking – which will undoubtedly take a tumble in the next update.
No denying it, ASU puts a good men’s team and perhaps an even better women’s team on the floor. But how long are the Sun Devil faithful going to be happy with just good?
It’s eight weeks yet before the NCAA Tournament begins and already the fans can see what is likely to happen should their favorite team get an invitation to the Dance. The prospects of a first- or second-round exit isn’t something to excite and energize the fan base.
Charli Turner Thorne, who has been the women’s head coach for the past 17 years, has taken two teams to the Elite Eight during March Madness, the last time being 2009 when she posted a 26-win record. And Sendek is one of the more respected college men’s coaches in the country, has been a Coach of the Year in three different conferences, and led ASU to three consecutive 20-win seasons shortly after arriving in Tempe in 2006 – the first Sun Devil coach to do that in almost 50 years.
Both Sendek and Turner Thorne are also respected for their recruiting skills. But in order to get their programs to the next level, that’s where they need to up their game. Today’s college game is all about the talent. Without that, it doesn’t make much difference who’s doing the coaching.
To validate that point, just take a look at the Arizona Wildcats program that head coach Sean Miller has put together in the five years since his arrival from the Xavier program. His teams have averaged 24 wins a season in Tucson and this week marks the seventh straight week that this year’s squad has been the No. 1 team in the country.
Miller is one of the best young coaches in the game, but as good a coach as he is, he’s also one of the top five recruiters in the country. He knows how to judge talent – and then goes after it, committing whatever energy and resources it takes to add the best players to his roster. Players like Aaron Gordon, the freshman sensation that was just honored as the USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year.
Gordon is just one cog in an offensive unit that includes height, talent, and toughness all the way across the line-up. That’s the difference between having one or two all-stars and a bunch of role players, rather than 4-star and 5-star talent that goes five to seven players deep.
Thanks to Miller’s recruiting blue-chip talent at every position, the Cats don’t have a weak link. They play at the highest level every night, and it’s that consistency that puts them among the elite in the college game.
Miller’s recruiting classes are consistently ranked in the top 10, and sometimes the top five, in the country and the results have been a pair of Sweet 16 appearances and one trip to the Elite Eight. This year, it’s difficult to imagine there not being a Final Four appearance awaiting their arrival at the Dance in March.
It all boils down to recruiting and, until ASU ups its game in that area, it may continue to put good teams on the floor -but not the kind that get a lot of TV exposure in March. And that’s what the fans want to see – and should be able to expect.
(Photos: ASU Athletics)