(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
Nobody necessarily wants to have its season end to the tune of a 21-4 run like Arizona State did against the USC Trojans, but it happened anyway. In fact, USC’s win was the first win by a 12th-seed in Pac-12 Tournament history (which is in just its fourth year of existence, but still).
That being said, taking a step back, saying ASU’s season was a disappointment might be the easy, knee-jerk reaction thing to say.
Sure, the loss was disappoint-ing for ASU head coach Herb Sendek and his team, but the season was far from a disappointment.
Expectations to the season were low to begin with seeing as 67 percent of the Sun Devils’ scoring had graduated, jumped to the professional ranks or moved on to different schools. People knew of the talent coming into Tempe, but it was relatively untested, and, compared with the rosters in the conference, relatively undermanned.
Fittingly, ASU was slotted to finish ninth in the Pac-12 in the preseason – not exactly a position to make the tournament, let alone make noise in the Pac-12 Tournament.
ASU still ran with the slogan, “Return and Advance,” despite what most predicted for the Sun Devils. It would take a miraculous nonconference performance and one heck of a finish in conference to see that reality come to fruition.
At the conclusion of their nonconference schedule, the Sun Devils sat at 8-5, including solid wins over Harvard and UNLV but countered by a loss to Lehigh. ASU also dropped resumé-building games against Maryland, Alabama and Marquette. There were chances to be had, but it seemed like ASU was not capable to take advantage of them. That being said, questions around the team and about the team were still in abundance.
The 0-4 start to Pac-12 play is well-documented, and it seemed like life was only going to get worse for ASU after freshman guard Kodi Justice was lost for the season, but that would turn out to be far from the truth.
Following a less-than-stellar start to the season, freshman point guard Tra Holder broke out, averaging double-figures in the last 14 games, including 15 points in ASU’s upset of Arizona in Wells Fargo Arena.
Holder’s emergence, which would eventually lead to Pac-12 All-Freshman honors, coupled with a more settled rotation showed flashes of what could have manifested itself into a surprise tournament run. It was a long shot, but there was still a shot.
Getting handed a 40-point loss at Utah did anything to help that cause, but ASU still closed out the season winning five of its last seven games to finish fifth in the conference – four spots above expectations.
And that’s where ASU stood with about 10 minutes remaining in its game against USC: above expectations.
The Sun Devils were playing efficiently, limiting USC’s second-chance points and committing just four first-half turnovers. Things looked like ASU would be facing UCLA, a team it had beaten just three weeks ago, in the quarterfinals. A run to the semifinals of the Pac-12 Tournament was not only possible, but realistic.
As USC chopped away at the lead, old demons resurfaced. ASU found itself unable to hit a shot from anywhere, going 10-for-33 from the field and a measly 1-for-12 from beyond the arc. The Sun Devils coughed up the ball six times while only dishing out four assists, and almost symbolically, senior forward Shaquielle McKissic’s attempt at the rim that would’ve given ASU the lead was blocked by USC forward Nikola Jovanovic.
It’s easy to look at the last 20 minutes of the game and shower the season with negative, pessimistic adjectives, but that could not be further from the case.
ASU is losing seniors Bo Barnes, Jonathan Gilling and Shaquielle McKissic. As much as they produced this season, they are far less the statistical trio that Jahii Carson, Jermaine Marshall and Jordan Bachynski was for the Sun Devils in the 2013-14 season.
Instead, Sendek welcomes back a proven scorer in Gerry Blakes, strong post presences in Savon Goodman and Eric Jacobsen, and a solid point guard to run the offense in Holder.
That’s not to mention what Justice could bring after he recovers from his injury as well as the untapped potential from Willie Atwood and Roosevelt Scott. Potentially more than anybody, those two will be the make-or-break players going into their senior campaign. Highly-touted out of the JUCO ranks (No. 8 and No. 33 respectively, according to 247sports.com), they found themselves at the bottom of the rotation as ASU made its run toward a fifth-seed.
All things considered, Sendek will have a bevy of not only talent, but experienced players who know how to handle the rigors and trials of a Pac-12 season. Given that the players continue to improve as a unit and individually, ASU could come into the 2015-16 season with expectations to do even more than it did in this season, and that is enough of a reason to consider the 2014-15 season in a positive light.
With an NIT Tournament bid still a possibility, there could still be games remaining, but regardless of that potential outcome, if the season were to end today for the Sun Devils and the last game was the loss to the USC Trojans, Sun Devil fans should consider this season was still a success.
You can reach Zac Pacleb on Twitter @ZacPacleb or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org