At this point of the season last year, it was an enigmatic time in ASU junior forward Brandan Kearney’s basketball career.
Kearney had just transferred from Michigan State after being unhappy about several things in life as a Spartan. Associate head coach Eric Musselman said the ASU coaching staff saw his name pop up, studied his stats and offered him a scholarship.
Kearney moved from his hometown of Detroit and wanted to make a new start in Tempe, but he had to sit an entire calendar year per NCAA rules.
While Kearney was inactive, the Sun Devils narrowly missed an NCAA Tournament bid in 2013. He said the hardest part of last season was watching the team from the sidelines and on television instead of playing.
“If I was on the team last year, I could’ve contributed,” Kearney said.
Redshirt sophomore point guard Jahii Carson had an idea of what Kearney went through. Carson sat out the entire 2011-12 season as a freshman after being ruled academically ineligible. He said he it was important to walk Kearney through, because he couldn’t use most of the nonconference schedule to develop like most players.
“It was a little tough for him,” Carson said. “He had to come in and we threw him out basically to the wolves, and we had a more deep team this year. He had to move his way into the system. I just told him, ‘Keep working. Keep coming focused and prepared every day and your time is going to come.’”
Still, Kearney stayed persistent. He came to practice every day and served on the scout team, where he learned about every Pac-12 team and their plays.
And his time did come.
After missing the first 11 games of the season, Kearney finally made his ASU debut on Dec. 21 against Texas Tech. The coaches at first reduced him to cameos in his first couple games, but with the bench struggling to develop consistency, Kearney progressively earned more significant time and even played 17 minutes on Jan. 12 at UCLA.
Three days later, senior guard Jermaine Marshall suffered a groin injury, setting up Kearney’s first start as a Sun Devil on Jan. 16 at UA.
It wasn’t too hard of a transition for Kearney. As he improved while he was ineligible, Kearney served on ASU’s scout team and got to learn the Pac-12 teams by acting like them in practice.
“We did a lot,” he said. “We would go over the other team’s plays, try to do things to help our team as far as what their guys do and then you try and work on your game, so it definitely helps you.”
Musselman said Kearney’s extra time in the gym has paid off.
“He loves to work,” Musselman said. “He’s always in the gym on off hours and that’s what makes him a special player.”
Kearney only averaged 2.1 points, 1.7 rebounds and 0.4 assists in the seven games he’s played, but he’s also shooting 42.9 percent from the field.
“I think more than anything, he’s improved on his shooting,” ASU coach Herb Sendek said.
Although Kearney has seen the majority of his playing time at point guard, he’s taken on a number of roles on the court, playing all the way up to power forward on smaller lineups. The coaches said his ability to shoot combined with his defense makes the team more dynamic.
“We’re really relying on his versatility to help us on all of the perimeter positions,” Sendek said.
Musselman called Kearney a “jack of all trades.” Carson said Kearney’s versatility helps him a lot.
“He’s taken a lot of pressure off me,” Carson said. “He’s 6-foot-7, he can guard (the) one through four (positions), he can handle the basketball, so now I can really go off the ball and make plays.”
Contrary to his time at Michigan State, Kearney said he’s now more comfortable at ASU both on and off the court. Musselman said Kearney must continue to build his confidence, but once he does that, Kearney wants to push the Sun Devils to a Pac-12 championship and an NCAA Tournament berth in each of his final two seasons.
“It’s definitely more of a relief (here),” Kearney said. “I’m just more happy with myself as a basketball player and a person.”
Reach the reporter at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @Josh_Nacion