Since Bobby Hurley took over, ASU basketball has paced with Arizona’s recruiting and culture. To eclipse it, the Sun Devils will need to beat their rivals.
There is no secret when it comes to who runs the Pac-12. It’s Arizona.
Bobby Hurley knew that four years ago, when he left Buffalo to become the head coach at Arizona State. And on Tuesday, the 47-year-old made no suggestion that anything has changed.
“They’re still an elite program,” Hurley said. “They’re having a very good year in a season when Sean [Miller] lost so much with guys going to the NBA and graduating.”
But he wouldn’t offer his program to compare.
“I don’t get hung up in, ‘Am I getting closer to being as good as someone else?,’” he said. “I just try to focus on what we’re doing here.”
Hurley is no stranger to competing in someone else’s shadow. As a Duke commit in 1989, his program hadn’t eclipsed Dean Smith and North Carolina, who seemed to collect ACC Championships and 25-win campaigns on a yearly basis.
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It wasn’t until Hurley’s junior season that perception changed. After two straight national championships, Duke was not only comparable to UNC, but to any of college basketball’s bluebloods.
At ASU, Hurley is starting to craft a similar process. In the last two seasons, the Sun Devils have reached program heights, tying the school’s highest national ranking (3) and defeating a top-ranked team (Kansas) for only the second time.
These steps are crucial for developing programs. But make no mistake – ASU is not yet comparable to Arizona. They haven’t beat the Wildcats in six tries under Hurley, and they haven’t yet competed for a Pac-12 championship, something the U of A has won five times in the last eight seasons alone.
However, there are strides that are matching Tucson’s pace. The Sun Devils brought in a top-11 recruiting class for the first time this offseason, according to 247Sports, which outmatched Arizona at No. 22.
The four recruits (Luguentz Dort, Uros Plavsic, Taeshon Cherry, Elias Valtonen) plus transfers (Rob Edwards, Zylan Cheatham) provide size ASU previously lacked. Once handing all responsibility to Obinna Oleka against opposing bigs, the Sun Devils are now predators, ranking sixth in the nation’s top rebounding teams.
While the identity may be different, the roster is all-encompassing. Valtonen, a four-star guard from Finland, chose ASU for his overall development.
“They can really help me get better with [guard play],” he said. “Our style of play is free on the offensive end. It requires a lot of patience and skills, and we’re practicing that every day, so it was a great place to get to the next step.”
Having talent is a fraction of a team’s growth. But without leadership, it’s hard to turn potential into existence.
This year, ASU has alpha personalities in Cheatham and Remy Martin. The two would stand toe-to-toe in a battle of infectious characters, and perhaps most importantly, they are a source of guidance for games like tomorrow night.
“Try not to lose yourself in the moment,” said Martin about the game. “That’s one thing I’ve learned and one thing I’ll tell my guys, is just stick to what we’re doing and play our game.”
“We plan on winning every game,” Cheatham added. “Obviously, we know what’s at stake with this team coming in, all the stories [and] background behind it. But it’s another game, and we just got to execute and try to win.”
To truly narrow the rivalry’s gap, Arizona State must win this game. They currently exceed Arizona’s record, but opportunities like these can springboard a chance at recognition.
For Valtonen, it can even create bragging rights against an old friend – former Arizona All-American Lauri Markkanen.
“When I was recruited here, he let me know where I came,” Valtonen said with a chuckle. “And where he came from.”
By tomorrow night, we’ll see how far ASU, and Bobby Hurley, have come. Because with Arizona, it’s always something extra.
All quotes in this article were obtained firsthand by Devils in Detail unless otherwise noted.