I remember watching the legendary John Wooden during the days he was coaching his UCLA basketball teams to 10 national championships. He would sit there, with a rolled-up sheet of paper, calmly watching as his Bruins gave their opponents a lesson in how the game should be played.
The Wizard of Westwood often seemed more like an observer than the guy directing the action.
That’s because Wooden had his players so prepared for each game that by tip-off there was little left to do but push the button and let his boys do their thing.
That mental picture came to mind after Arizona State‘s stunning upset of then-No. 2 Kansas last Sunday when ASU head coach Bobby Hurley told reporters: “This was a very special win for us and our program, and I really didn’t have to coach a whole lot today.” His guys just went out and did what they had been taught to do – run fast, shoot straight, and play hard.
This isn’t meant as a comparison here to John Wooden. But it’s becoming obvious that Hurley, just starting his fifth year as a college head coach, will be a top-tier coach as he progresses through his career.
After failing to post a winning season in his first two years in charge of the Sun Devil program, the former Duke All-American has a team that is 9-0 and looking like a legitimate threat to go deep into the postseason. The players have definitely bought into the gritty, full-speed-ahead style of play that made their coach one of the best guards to play college ball.
Thanks to the double-digit loss at Phog Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, the Jayhawks fell out of the Top 10 in the national rankings. And ASU entered the Top 10. The last time an ASU team got to share that rarified air was back in 1981.
And keep in mind, this is a team that was picked by the media in the preseason poll to finish sixth in the Pac-12 Conference.
And beating Kansas on the road was even more impressive. ASU’s 95 points are the most scored on a Jayhawk team on their home court in almost 30 years. Kansas has lost just 10 times at home in the last 15 seasons.
The Sun Devils, who were ranked No. 16 last week, shot up all the way to No. 5. But their new national stature comes from more than beating the No. 2 team in the country. They are one of just seven undefeated teams in the country, following wins over teams like No. 15 Xavier, Kansas State, and San Diego State. No cupcakes here.
The 95-85 upset of Kansas was just the final validation for a team that deserves to be in the national conversation this year. But it showed what this team is capable of achieving since that last win was against one of the best teams in the nation right now.
Hurley has his foot on the accelerator of a scoring machine this season. ASU is averaging 92 points a game and became the first Pac-12 team in 20 years to score 90 or more in six straight games. One good reason for that is a back court that is considered among the best in the nation this season, featuring a senior guard tandem that has combined for nearly 3,000 career points.
Tra Holder, who ran up 40 points against Xavier, scored 29 points against Kansas, and Shannon Evans II added 22 points. And freshman Remy Martin, who is providing added depth at that position, chipped in 21 points.
Kansas head coach Bill Self had this to say about the trio after the game: “I don’t know how tall they list Holder and Evans and Martin, but they all got to be under 5’11”. And to have three guys score 72 points – that’s ridiculous.” For the record, Holder and Evans are listed at 6’1″ and Martin at 6-foot even.
Perhaps more impressive than the offensive stats was the Sun Devils’ ability to come from behind in a hostile environment of 16,000-plus Jayhawk fans, something ASU has done on numerous occasions this season. They worked their way out of a 15-2 hole to start the game, cut the deficit to three points going into halftime, and then used a 15-point run in the third quarter to take over the lead and roll to their ninth win. They shot 57.6 percent from the field in the second half and scored 58 points against a team that had been allowing just 63 points per entire game.
No one saw this surge by Hurley’s troops coming. And even Hurley couldn’t have foreseen another interesting note to the early success:
At No. 5, his Sun Devils are sitting just below another familiar team in the national rankings. Duke is No. 4.
Coach K may have to worry about the Devils as the season goes on. But right now he has to be really proud of the young coach in Tempe who obviously listened and learned during his time in Durham.
(Photo: Kansas Athletics)