(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
Going into the 2014-15 season, the Arizona State women’s basketball team was picked to finish seventh in the conference.
Obviously, nobody expected much. The Sun Devils had lost all-conference point guard and leading scorer Deja Mann to graduation. Aside from the lone senior on the roster in Promise Amukamara, they didn’t have much experience and figured to coast to a middle of the pack finish. ASU had other ideas.
Instead, the Sun Devils went 29-6 on the year including a 15-3 conference mark, good for second place in the Pac-12. They even went on to make an appearance in the Sweet 16, far surpassing any preseason expectations.
This season, ASU once again lost its top contributor—Promise Amukamara—but preseason voters aren’t making the same mistake twice.
The Sun Devils enter the 2015-16 season ranked No. 15 in the country and are projected to finish third in the Pac-12. After finishing only one game out of first place in the conference last season, they figure to be a competitor again this season.
Losing Promise Amukamara will be a big blow to this team, and with the anticipation of another successful season, only one question remains.
Will the Sun Devils be able to live up to the everybody’s lofty expectations?
“We’re very aware of what we need to work on,” head coach Charli Turner Thorne said. “We’re just super excited to have a veteran team. We’ve had a good preseason, but we’re ready for real games.”
Life after Promise Amukamara
Although this team isn’t short on experience, it will absolutely miss the veteran leadership and defensive presence of Promise Amukamara, who graduated and was drafted by the Phoenix Mercury following last season.
Promise was arguably ASU’s most important player a season ago. The lone senior on the roster, she was both a vocal leader and a leader on the court. She was in the top five in nearly every statistical category for the Sun Devils, but what they will miss the most is her lockdown defensive presence.
Every single game, Promise was tasked with shutting down the opposing team’s top perimeter scoring threat, and did so extremely well.
Still, the Sun Devils have been known for their team defense, ranking first in scoring defense last season with just under 56 points allowed per game.
Promise will likely be replaced in the starting lineup by her younger sister Peace Amukamara, who is in many ways a spitting image of her older sister. Peace was the backup point guard in her junior season but saw many important minutes throughout the year, and as a senior will look to assert herself as one of the top players on the roster.
New season, old faces
ASU returns four starters from last year’s successful season.
Being one of the more experienced teams in the conference has been one of the reasons that the Sun Devils are drawing such high expectations this year, but Sophie Brunner, ASU’s leading rebounder and second leading scorer from a season ago, knows there’s room for improvement.
“Obviously we want to grow from last year,” Brunner said. “We did pretty well but we can’t just be complacent about it, so just grow in every area both on the court and off the court.”
Along with Brunner, ASU returns starters Katie Hempen, Elisha Davis, and Kelsey Moos, as well as key contributors Quinn Dornstauder, Eliza Normen, Peace Amukamara, and Arnecia Hawkins.
After the amount of success these Sun Devils experienced a season ago, hype was to be expected, and a bevy of experienced returners definitely helps perpetuate that hype.
Katie Hempen and Sophie Brunner’s time to step up
A season ago, Hempen and Brunner were two of the team’s best players. Of course, the Sun Devils are expecting nothing less from the duo this year.
In her junior season last year, Hempen broke Briann January’s program record for three-point field goals made in one season with 76, twice as many as any other player on the team. She also led the Sun Devils in scoring with 12 points per game.
Hempen will be one of the top offensive threats on this roster again this season and will be essential to ASU’s offensive game, as her sharpshooting will help to spread the defense and allow for scoring opportunities for her teammates.
Brunner scored with nearly the same proficiency as Hempen, averaging nearly 12 points per game, but also led the team in rebounding with 7.6 per contest. Despite being just 6-foot-1, Brunner serves as the physical presence down low to help balance out ASU’s offensive sets.
What these two have in common is that they will need to step up as the leaders of this team in order for the Sun Devils to have success.
Just watching the team play last season, it was apparent that they leaned on the leadership of Promise Amukamara; however, Hempen and Brunner were both vocal players and flashed key leadership qualities over the course of the season. Turner Thorne as head coach is clearly a great leader, but on-the-court leadership can’t be overvalued in basketball.
Every team needs leaders, and Hempen and Brunner seem like the best fits for the job.
The Saskatchewan Sensation
ASU faced questions about its height last season, which were warranted considering the Sun Devils had barely any players over 6-feet tall with any experience. Those questions will carry over into this year, but fortunately the Sun Devils, Quinn Dornstauder came out of nowhere to assert herself as a top post presence last season.
Dornstauder, a 6-foot-4 center and the tallest player on the team, had her coming out party in a 22-point outburst against Stanford a season ago when ASU was having trouble dealing with the size of players like Erica McCall and Kaylee Johnson. Dornstauder’s size matched up nicely with the Cardinal, and she managed to hit most of her shots en route to a big Sun Devil conference victory.
Following that game, Dornstauder saw her minutes increase, allowing her to become one of the key players in ASU’s rotation. Her height and ability to act as an anchor on the interior of the defense is huge for ASU (no pun intended).
Not only is she very well equipped physically, but she’s also extremely raw, meaning that her upside is very high. Dornstauder steadily improved throughout the year and with another offseason under Turner Thorne, it’ll be interesting to see what she’s added to her arsenal.
The Canadian also got valuable experience over the summer, as she was able to represent her country as a part of the 2015 Canadian World University Games team.
Dornstauder has chance to become one of the best, if not the best, player on this Sun Devil team if she plays up to her potential.With ASU’s size issues, her performance this season will directly translate to how the Sun Devils fare this season.
Elisha Davis looks to run the offense
When Deja Mann left the team following the 2013-14 season, point guard was a major question mark for ASU, but Davis quickly turned that question mark into an exclamation point.
Despite standing at only 5-foot-3, Davis was a vital member of last year’s team. The Oakland, California product was fourth on the team in scoring with 7.5 points per game and led the team in free throw percentage at 80 percent. But Davis’ most impressive asset is her ability to distribute the ball.
Davis has led the Sun Devils in assists in each of the last two seasons, including averaging 4.5 assists per game in 2014-15, good for third most in the Pac-12.
Much of what ASU does with its half-court sets revolves around the point guard’s ability to facilitate the offense, and Davis has proven to have what it takes. As a senior, she’ll be looking to be a court general, leading ASU’s offense and attempting to guide the Sun Devils to a successful season.
What to Watch For
Offensive production will definitely need to increase for this team to compete with the Stanford’s and Oregon State’s of the Pac-12. The team averaged 67.7 points per game, which was only eighth best in the conference. Fortunately for them, they did have the top scoring defense in the conference, allowing for an impressive scoring margin of +11.7 points per game. ASU’s defense should still be strong this season, but losing a top defensive player like Promise will take a toll on the Sun Devils’ ability to shut down premiere perimeter threats throughout the year.
It seems that a focus was put on scheduling top tier talent in non-conference play, highlighted by matchups with No. 23 Syracuse, No. 17 Kentucky, No. 7 Florida State and No. 2 South Carolina. It will be one of the toughest non-conference slates in the conference and much more difficult to navigate than last season’s in which the Sun Devils went 14-3. It’s entirely possible that ASU drops multiple games before reaching Pac-12 play, but it will be interesting to see how competing against type of teams that they would see in the postseason will affect the Sun Devils in the long run.
The Pac-12 will be a very tough, very deep conference yet again in 2015-16. No team is guaranteed to win the conference title, but that’s what makes this field so interesting. ASU has just as much of a shot as any other team in the conference, and under one of the conference’s best coaches in Turner Thorne, the Sun Devils will have many expecting them to succeed.