The University of Arizona men’s basketball team is getting ready to step onto the road that will, they hope, lead to a Final Four.
Arizona State, on the other hand, quickly hit the end of its road, getting only as far as the First Four before being kicked to the curb.
The fourth-seeded Wildcats, winners of the Pac-12 Tournament and projected in the pre-season to be a Final Four participant, are preparing to take on Buffalo in tonight’s opening round. But the Sun Devils’ journey ended abruptly last night in Dayton, Ohio, where they lost in the final seconds of a play-in game against Syracuse, 60-56.
Befuddled by zone defenses all season long, the Devils came up against one of the best in the country and their attempts to shoot over the famous 2-3 zone of Coach Jim Boeheim were disappointing, to say the least. ASU made just 11 of 32 attempts from behind the arc.
ASU and Syracuse were the last two teams selected for the tourney field and, as such, were among eight teams that had an extra game to play their way into the field of 64. Both were given 11 seeds.
The Sun Devils set a new school record by wining the first 12 games on this year’s schedule, beating Kansas and Xavier, which are both No. 1 seeds in the tournament, and earning a No. 3 national ranking. But things fell apart during conference play and the Devils ended the regular season as a team on the bubble. It was the early eyebrow-raising upsets, combined with a decent RPI ranking, that got them an invitation to the Big Dance.
This was just the second NCAA appearance for ASU’s third-year head coach, Bobby Hurley, the first coming while coaching two years at Buffalo. Boeheim, on the other hand, has taken Syracuse to 33 tournament appearances and won 54 games. But it wasn’t the coaching, so much as the playing, that derailed ASU in a game they could have won.
In addition to missing 21 shots from three-point land, they made just three of 10 attempts at the free-throw line. A couple more free throws and one more trey would have meant that Hurley would have his first NCAA Tournament victory, and ASU would be moving on to face TCU in the opening round.
ASU (20-12) depended heavily on its veterans, and wasn’t disappointed as its trio of senior starters scored in double digits. Kodi Justice led the team with 15 points and five assists, while Shannon Evans contributed 14 points and five rebounds and Tra Holder added 11 points, six rebounds, and four assists.
But the ASU defense had trouble containing Syracuse’s freshman sensation, Oshae Brissett, who dropped in 23 points, while collecting 12 rebounds.
Both teams had difficulty finding the hoop through the first half, due in part to strong defensive efforts. For the game, the Devils shot 41 percent from the field and the Orange finished with 40 percent.
Syracuse led by just a bucket, 30-28, at the half, but was able to inflict more damage than expected from long distance, connecting on four of its nine shots from behind the arc.
The Devils were down just a point in the final minute, but three made free throws by Syracuse center Paschal Chukwu in the final 40 seconds provided the margin of victory.
This was not only Hurley’s first 20-win season at ASU, but his first winning season in his three years directing the program and the school’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2014. This was also the Sun Devils’ 14th NCAA tourney appearance in the history of the program.
But, unfortunately, this time it was not something the graduating class can take with them as a fond memory.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)