(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
As colleges across America gear up for the new basketball season, Arizona State second-year head coach Bobby Hurley now faces a task that is difficult but not impossible: improving from his first season.
The Sun Devils went 15-17 last year. They started off well, but the Pac-12 hit hard as they posted a 5-13 conference record. Lack of depth turned into a crippling hindrance for Arizona State, with only eight healthy/eligible players on the roster in late February.
Hurley had the 2016 offseason to start recruiting players of his choosing. The Sun Devils netted a strong group, but there are still some problems.
The team’s roster flaw is a lack of size. Eric Jacobsen’s graduation left ASU without a clear starter at the center position. Jethro Tshisumpa, a 6-foot-10 freshman from the Democratic Republic of Congo, may be of help.
Hurley may throw Tshisumpa, a top-100 recruit, into the fire immediately. The Pac-12 will be a battle where size matters. The five teams who led the conference in rebounding margin last year were also the five teams that finished above .500 in conference play.
Hurley attempted to jump ahead of this problem, recruiting several new faces to the frontcourt in the 2016 class. Unfortunately for ASU, 3-star power forward Vitaliy Shibel tore his ACL in August and 4-star PF Romello White is academically ineligible for the season.
ASU needs size to defend inside and compete on the glass, and Tshisumpa and returning power forward Obinna Oleka are going to carry most of the load.
While the Devils may lack in size, they exceed in dynamism on the perimeter. Junior guard Tra Holder is back, now joined by redshirt junior Shannon Evans. On top of that, ASU scored a major pickup in freshman Sam Cunliffe, ESPN’s highest ranking recruit since James Harden to come to Tempe.
Cunliffe brings a versatile offensive skill set, making him capable of being an immediate contributor. He’s a 6-foot-7 wing with high-level athleticism and shooting range to go with it.
Rebalancing the offense with a big new piece like Cunliffe will help the Sun Devils redistribute their field goals. ASU did not have a perimeter player shoot above 40 percent from the floor last season. They also posted the worst field goal percentage in the Pac-12 at 41.5.
This is most beneficial for Holder, who shot 38.7 percent and led the team with 362 attempts. With a weapon like Cunliffe, Holder can tone back his aggression and focus more on playmaking.
Junior guard Kodi Justice also remains an effective three-point threat who led the team with 60 three-pointers last season. Arizona State has options on the perimeter now, a positive change for a team that saw depth issues turn into a death knell last season.
ASU will need these perimeter players to step up. The outside defense has to deny easy access to the interior because the team lacks big shot blockers. They have to play tighter to the basket on both ends to be competitive for rebounds.
The Sun Devils have the talent to put up a very good season. The problem is the talent is very focused on certain positions while others are lacking. How Hurley manages this imbalance will be critical in how fans feel about him after his second year.