(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
As the scene often is after a team’s season ends, the Arizona State locker room was a quiet, morose place. Players kept to themselves, got dressed, iced aching joints and quietly filed out of the locker room in the MGM Grand.
Not many words were exchanged save for a handful of players answering questions for the media, but even then, there wasn’t much to say.
When asked to summarize the season, several players described it as a “roller coaster.”
A first-round exit in the Pac-12 Tournament capped a 15-17 season and an 11th-place finish in the Pac-12 in what was a largely but understandably forgettable inaugural start to Bobby Hurley’s head coaching stint in Tempe.
“If you look at it glass-half-full and in a positive way, for me, I’ve gone through a lot this year with this team in a lot of different ways, so I feel like I’ve learned a lot from it,” Hurley said. “I take a lot away from it. I’ve dealt with a lot of circumstances, and getting the chance to get a taste at this level and see what needs to be done in moving forward, it was good for me in that sense.
“But my job is to give this group the best chance to play as far as they can and get the most out of it, and I’ll always wonder why we couldn’t click a little better and put together some wins, and so I’m kind of torn about the year to be honest.”
Six months ago, a lowly finish wasn’t entirely out of the realm of possibility when previewing ASU’s season.
The Sun Devils were slotted 8th in the preseason poll with the main concerns circulating their lack of depth and size. Through 18 Pac-12 contests, they ranked in the bottom-third in field goal percentage, two-point field goal percentage, total rebounds and blocks, and dead-last in opponent’s two-point percentage.
But 13 games into the 2015-16 campaign, the Sun Devils sat at 10-3 with road wins over UNLV and Creighton and a heck of a resume-building win at home over then-No. 18 Texas A&M. ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi slotted ASU in the tournament. The Hurley-turnaround looked like it was happening a lot quicker than anyone thought.
At first, ASU’s roller coaster seemed like it was only going up, but in order to stay within the cliché description, the ecstasy of exceeding expectations came screaming down once the Pac-12 schedule began.
That isn’t to say the first 13 games were void of warning signs. Doing so would ignore the season-opening loss to Sacramento State, who finished 14-16 and ranked No. 279 in KenPom.
It would also ignore the five-point overtime loss to Marquette in Brooklyn that was partially the result of every ASU frontcourt player fouling out and also the inspiration for this classic Thanksgiving tweet from Bobby Hurley:
Thanksgiving dinner alone- my whole team fouled out pic.twitter.com/OsMWmKFVxy
— Bobby Hurley (@BobbyHurley11) November 26, 2015
The nonconference slate not only shed some light on the on-the-court issues for ASU, but also a little of the off-the-court events the Sun Devils would deal with throughout the remainder of the season.
Junior forward Savon Goodman missed the final four games before Pac-12 play with what was deemed “personal reasons” but now is known as a suspension.
Since then, ASU’s suspension list grew. Sophomore guard Maurice O’Field missed nine games because of a suspension.
Junior forward Torian Graham, who was sitting out the season due to transfer rules, was suspended at the same time as O’Field and hasn’t been seen practicing with the team since then.
Junior guard Andre Spight left the team with four games left in the regular season with intentions to transfer. Spight was in the midst of his best scoring form as a Sun Devil, dropping double-digits in three of his last four games.
Already struggling on the court, all the noise around the program regarding things that hardly have to do with actually playing is a distraction for anyone, let alone 19, 20 and 21-year-old student-athletes.
“At the end of the day, you’re playing basketball. If something happens off the court, it happens,” sophomore guard Kodi Justice said. “You play with who you have on the court and you go to war every day with them, so you try to not focus on that and worry about that, you just go to war with who’s on the court, and who’s there is who’s going to battle with us, and if they’re not there, well, on to the next guy.”
On top of all the roster changes, azcentral.com was reported that assistant coach Brian Merrit was arrested on suspicion of DUI in mid-February.
“With things happening in the program, it was tough,” Justice said. “It felt very disappointing, and I felt bad for our seniors because I don’t ever want to go out like this, and I can’t imagine what they’re going through. This is tough.”
And despite those distractions, ASU continued to compete. Other than back-to-back abysmal blowout losses in Tucson and Salt Lake City, the Sun Devils hung in nearly every Pac-12 contest.
For what seemed like a different reason each night, they fell short, and that trend continued in ASU’s 75-66 loss to Oregon State.
“We shot ourselves in the foot over and over again,” Justice said. “We’d battle back, and they’d go up, and we’d battle back, and they’d go up, and we just couldn’t over the hump.”
Again and again, ASU would whittle the Beavers’ lead to six or seven points only to have the deficit balloon to double-digits over and over again. It was a missed open shot here, a blown defensive assignment there, and ultimately, the 17th loss for Hurley’s squad.
“We worked hard for something all year, and it just comes to an end quickly,” senior forward Willie Atwood said. “It happened fast. We were high at one point, and now we’re low.”
In a season that featured nearly everything except consistent success, it seemed fitting that ASU’s final game comprised of mini-runs that fell short of challenging for the lead.
“Couldn’t get over the hump,” senior guard Gerry Blakes said. “Probably like the story of our season.”