There were almost 2,000 more fans that packed into the GCU Arena on the west side of Phoenix to watch last night’s season opener for the Grand Canyon University men’s basketball team, which was a Division II program just two season ago and is still working its way through a four-year transition period to full D-I status.
Meanwhile, Arizona State, an established Pac-12 team that was offering up the debut of a new head coach amid a flurry of pre-season buzz, put just 5,275 fannies in the seats at Wells Fargo Arena. That fell well short of the 7,249 at GCU.
That’s just one sign of a program that is still trying to generate enthusiasm among its fan base.
As it turned out, the Antelopes’ fans enjoyed a better experience – and left pumped for the next game after a well-played 82-72 win against Portland State. I was at that game; the noise level was deafening – from tip off to final buzzer.
Meanwhile in Tempe, Sun Devil fans were treated to a game in which their team managed just 23 points in the first half to fall behind by six at intermission as Sacramento State went on to pull off a stunning 66-63 victory to spoil the coaching debut of former Duke standout Bobby Hurley. Hurley was hired in April after a successful two years as the head coach at Buffalo.
Both Sacramento State and Portland State are from the lower-tier Big Sky Conference, in which Northern Arizona University plays. ASU’s game should have been nothing more than a tune-up for a Pac-12 team since Sacramento State was picked by the Big Sky coaches to finish in 10th place this season. GCU is playing in the Western Athletic Conference, also a step up from the Big Sky.
But this story has to be about Arizona State. Hurley is the new face of the program, the anointed savior with a pedigree that included a couple of national championships at Duke. Someone who knows what it takes to get a collegiate program to the next level on the national stage, and spent five full seasons as a player in the NBA. And at Buffalo he led that team to its first-ever conference title and NCAA Tournament appearance.
Granted, this is just one game in a rebuilding effort after Hurley’s predecessor, Herb Sendek, spent nine years trying to elevate the program. But after a string of 20-win seasons early on, the program lost steam and became an afterthought in the Pac-12 and struggled to make NCAA Tournament appearances.
The knock on Sendek was his lack of success on the recruiting trail. Hurley, with his high-profile name and an ability to connect with today’s youth, was expected to change that. He’s still working with some of Sendek’s players and hasn’t had a chance to stake out his own territory yet, so this season will be a transition year.
But last night’s performance has even ardent supporters cringing.
“It was not the way I wanted to start things here, for sure,” Hurley told the media after the game. “I thought we played a little bit nervous in the first half, for some reason, just having issues with simple things like catching the ball. It became infectious, it carried over into how we shot the ball throughout the course of the game.”
The Devils shot a lukewarm 36 percent from the field, and a disastrous 37.5 percent at the free throw line, in the first half – and went 0-for-8 from behind the arc.
“Obviously, any time you shoot that way from the free throw line, you’re not going to have much success, regardless of who your opponent is.”
Last night’s opponent didn’t even take advantage of the slow start. The Hornets shot just 42 per cent from the field, 33 percent at the line, and made just two of their eight three-point attempts.
But still, the Sun Devils couldn’t seem to get a jump on the visitors. The stats for both teams improved in the second half, but, despite an offensive surge early in the second half, ASU just couldn’t get on top of their opponents.
Even on the boards, the Devils struggled, as Sacramento State out-rebounded them, 25-17. “It’s disappointing that those rebounding numbers are what they are,” said Hurley in addressing that part of the game. “So it’s an area we need to improve on and get better.”
On the plus side, ASU had four players in double figures: Tra Holder (17), Gerry Blakes (13), Eric Jacobsen (12), and Willie Atwood (11).
Hurley also had little good to say about his team’ defense, which struggled with the Hornets’ zone and allowed them to go on a 19-8 run in the game’s final six minutes, so it looks like there are plenty of opportunities for improvement before Monday’s game against Belmont in the Legends Classic.
Last night’s game was close enough coming down the stretch, as a failed three-point attempt by senior guard Blakes at the buzzer could have taken the game into overtime. But this loss will look like any other when it appears on the season record.
It’s obvious Hurley needs to find some answers before the Belmont game. Maybe this would be a good time for a call to his old hall-of-fame coach at Duke. Mike Krzyzewski always seemed to have the answers that enabled Duke to win more than 900 games and five national titles under his tutelage.
The Sun Devils’ current woes are curable. A lot of it has to do with motivation, focus, and effort.
If Hurley is to have any success at ASU, beyond what Sendek was able to accomplish, he will have to take the talent he has and reach his goals by getting his players to overachieve.
Unfortunately, that’s not what happened last night. Just the opposite.