Arizona State men's basketball heads into tough Bahamas tournament

Michelle Gardner
Arizona Republic

Arizona State heads into the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas with a 2-2 record. The two losses were by a combined three points, the 66-65 loss to UC Riverside coming on a three-quarters shot at the buzzer.

The next game will no doubt be the toughest of the nonconference slate as the Sun Devils will face reigning national champion and No. 9 Baylor (4-0) at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday with that contest airing on ESPN2.

Their second game in that event will be against either Syracuse or Virginia Commonwealth, depending on the outcome in the two games.

Also in the eight-team field is No. 23 Connecticut, coached by Dan Hurley, brother of ASU coach Bobby Hurley. The two have never had their teams square off against each other.

ASU begins Pac-12 play on Dec. 1 against Washington State at 5:30 p.m. at Desert Financial Arena.

Some takeaways of what we have learned about the new version of the Sun Devils:

Nov 18, 2021; San Diego, California, USA; Arizona State Sun Devils forward Kimani Lawrence (4) and San Diego State Aztecs forward Keshad Johnson (0) battle for a rebound during the first half at Viejas Arena.

1. Rebounding issues addressed

The biggest area of deficiency last season was rebounding. The Sun Devils were 332nd out of 350 Division I teams in rebounding margin at -7.8.  The return of Marcus Bagley and Kimani Lawrence helped there as well as the continued emergence of junior Jalen Graham, but Hurley also went out landed some key additions, with the gem in his recruiting class being four-star prospect Enoch Boakye, a 6-foot-10 center out of Canada. Among the other noteworthy newcomers is junior college transfer Alonzo Gaffney, who is 6-9 and boasts a 7-3 wingspan. ASU will have some length which will not only help in rebounding but in affecting shots around the basket, interrupting passing lanes and the like. The Sun Devils outrebounded three of the first foes and are a +4 in rebounding which ranks 140th, significant improvement.

2. This team can share the basketball

Team chemistry was an issue last season with too many players who were used to having the offense run through them. Last season ASU was eighth in the conference and 176th nationally in assists at 13.1 ppg. ASU managed 15 of 31 made field goals in its opener against Portland, 12 of 25 against UCR and 16 of 28 against North Florida. The Sun Devils are tied for 149th right now but should move up even more as the season progresses and the chemistry evolves. Toledo transfer Marreon Jackson, the MAC Player of the Year, has 18 through four games to lead the way.

3. Lawrence will be Mr. Consistent

Lawrence was the Sun Devils' best player down the stretch last season. He averaged 8.1 points and five rebounds on the season but was at 13.1 points and 7.7 rebounds over the last nine games with his best game being a 21-point, 20-rebound effort against Washington. This season he's averaging 16 points and 10 rebounds with three double-doubles in four outings. The Providence, Rhode Island, native was already going to be counted on as one of just three returning players but he has picked up where he left off a year ago. He's been in the program the longest so he gives a veteran presence. He's also proven to be a low maintenance player, goes about his business, doesn't complain, working through whatever problems occur.

4. Marcus Bagley injury a concern

The 6-foot-8 forward had two injuries that kept him out of a large portion of the 2020-21 season which was a major reason he opted to return this season when the original plan was for him to be a one-and-done. This season he was slowed in the lead up to the season with a knee injury, unrelated to either ailment which caused him to miss the scrimmage and exhibition games. He played the first two games but left the North Florida game midway into the first half and did not return. After the game Hurley said he was "concerned" about the injury. Apparently he was concerned enough to decide on Tuesday to leave Bagley home for the Bahamas trip.

Nov 18, 2021; San Diego, California, USA; San Diego State Aztecs forward Nathan Mensah (31) shoots the ball while defended by Arizona State Sun Devils forwards Jalen Graham (2) and Alonzo Gaffney (32) during the first half at Viejas Arena.

5. ASU still a work in progress

This team has just three players who were on the active roster last year, down to two if Bagley is out of the mix for an extended period of time. Guard Luther Muhammad was in the program but had shoulder surgery so he wasn't even fully in the mix for much of the time. So that's nine newcomers even  if you don't count Muhammad. Three of the newcomers — Jackson, D.J. Horne and Jay Heath were leading scorers at the schools from which they transferred. Teams with that much turnover take a bit of time to gel. The good news is that Hurley has praised the team chemistry and work ethic so it is likely that will happen in the not too distant future. Sure there have been some hiccups early, but that is to be expected for a team with that much turnover.

Reach the reporter at Michelle.Gardner@gannett.com or 602 444-4783.  Follow her on Twitter @MGardnerSports.

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