I had a feeling it could be a special year for basketball in Tempe.
But I’d be lying if I said I thought it was going to be the No. 15 ASU women’s basketball team that would be doing all the head-turning and putting the Sun Devils on the national hardwood radar.
Headed by coach Charli Turner Thorne, who shocked many by taking a leave of absence in the 2011-12 season and who disappointed many more by going just 13-18 last season, this Sun Devil women’s basketball team (17-3, 6-2 Pac-12) is giving Sun Devil fans something to be truly excited about and is poised to do so for years to come.
The women’s team quietly got off to an incredibly hot nonconference start, and at the end of December, Turner Thorne’s squad boasted an 11-1 record that included signature wins over then-No. 11 North Carolina in overtime and against then-No. 20 Syracuse in a 63-60 comeback thriller.
ASU averaged 75 points per game in those 11 wins and the Sun Devils’ only non-conference loss came on the road against a San Diego team that is now 18-2.
Frankly, they were playing an exciting brand of basketball, but we were all too busy watching the Sun Devil football team host the Pac-12 Championship and pinning our men’s tournament hopes on future NBA draft pick Jahii Carson to notice what the women were doing.
Well, now it’s time to notice (and maybe even re-pin any tournament hopes we had) because as the men’s team struggles to find its identity and a signature win, this women’s team is racking up tournament-worthy wins and playing the most exciting hoops in Tempe.
And despite suffering a tough conference-opening home loss to Washington on Jan. 3, the Sun Devils have rebounded by winning six of their next seven conference games. This stretch of wins included handing USC its only conference loss in overtime on the road and beating then-No. 15 Cal.
In fact, the only loss in that seven-game stretch was a home drubbing at the hands of No. 4 national juggernaut Stanford.
After that loss, Turner Thorne told reporters that she didn’t feel like her team executed its game plan and allowed Stanford to play to its strengths.
“We can make up a lot of excuses, but we won’t,” she said. “Obviously, you are going to have to play your A-game to be in a position to beat Stanford, and we didn’t.”
Sounds like a coach who is saying, and more importantly doing, all the right things and one who won’t take less than the best effort from a team that has shown it can compete at a high level.
She called the loss a “wake-up call” for her team, which certainly woke up in the coming games. The Sun Devils responded like any good team and rebounded from the tough loss by beating Utah and Colorado, both on the road and both in one-possession games.
Now, with a final ten-game stretch that includes road rematches against No. 4 Stanford (19-1, 8-0 Pac-12) and No. 21 Cal (14-5, 6-2 Pac-12), the Sun Devils will have to play perhaps their best basketball of the season to meet their growing expectations and to put an exclamation point on what is shaping up to be a stellar season.
Turner Thorne’s past record of success (she has guided ASU teams to the Elite Eight twice and the Sweet Sixteen once in the past 10 years) along with the trust she shows in her team should mean that the Sun Devils will handle the next 10 games like they have the whole season and position themselves as a top seed in the Pac-12 and NCAA tournaments.
This team could even challenge Stanford as one of the top teams representing the Pac-12 in the NCAA tournament, both this year and beyond as only two of the Sun Devils’ top seven minutes leaders are seniors.
“I could not be more proud of this team,” Turner Thorne said after the win against Colorado.
Well, coach Turner Thorne, neither could Sun Devil Nation, and it seems that this Sun Devil basketball team will be the most exciting show in town come March.
Reach the columnist at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @NPMendoza