With its regular season coming to a close, the ASU men's basketball team is set to honor three valuable members before Saturday's game against Cal.
In a season full of ups and downs, this group of three seniors has been able to weather the storm and provide leadership for a young, inexperienced team navigating a tough Pac-12 conference.
This year's incarnation of the Sun Devils features 12 players who are new or did not get much playing time a season ago, so upperclassmen acting as leaders were a big key at the start of the year and especially conference play. Despite just one senior in the starting five, each of the three seniors proved vital to the chemistry and development of the team as the year went on.
Forward Jonathan Gilling is the only one of the batch of graduates who has been at ASU for four years. He said he had no illusions about what his future would hold when he arrived at ASU, and that he wasn't sure what to expect.
"Everyone asked me when I came here, 'Oh, what are your expectations,' and I said that I had no expectations," Gilling said. "When I came here, it was a whole new country, big gym. (The practice gym) is the size of the gym I played my home games in in Denmark, so I didn't have any expectations. It was just like I'm taking it where it comes."
Since his start on campus, Gilling has been a model of consistency for the Sun Devils. He has played in 127 games thus far and will most likely pass Derek Glasser for the most games played in program history.
Despite starting for most of his first three seasons, Gilling has not started one game this season and has focused more on being a veteran presence on the second unit. The move has paid off for him, as he has played the most efficient basketball of his four years in his final season.
The forward's MO has been operating from the perimeter and he has done so with deadly accuracy. Gilling's 40.7 3-point percentage is the third best in Pac-12 history, behind only UCLA's Jason Kapono (.464) and Arizona's Salim Stoudamire (.458). Gilling needs seven 3-pointers to pass Ron Riley for the fourth most made in ASU history.
While never the No. 1 option on the offensive end, Gilling enters his final home weekend of his career sitting at 987 career points and would surpass the 1,000 career point plateau by maintaining his scoring average through the weekend.
Gilling is not one to think about what he has done before he's fully done, however. He showed that he is not about sentimentality before something ends, saying that he'll think back on his time at ASU once it is over and once his team's business has been taken care of.
"I haven't really given it that much thought because you're in the whole thing right now," Gilling said. "All you're thinking about is the next practice, the next thing you're going to do with your team. It's not like, 'Oh, I had this and this memory,' they'll all come later, I think."
ASU coach Herb Sendek spoke highly of his lone four-year senior, praising his efficiency from deep, something that has made him an important cog during his career.
"He's earned the nickname The Danish Dagger; you can certainly say that," Sendek said. "He's made a lot of 3's, he's one of the all-time leaders in our conference, he's shot a very high percentage and he's made a lot of big 3's, including the one at the end of the USC game."
Gilling isn't the only 3-point specialist being honored, as guard Bo Barnes will also play on ASU's home court for the final time.
Barnes did not start his career in Tempe, but it is where he found a home. An Arizona native, he chose to attend and play basketball at the University of Hawaii out of high school.
After a single season playing for the Warriors, Barnes decided to returned to the mainland and attend ASU.
Barnes committed to play at ASU as a walk-on with no promise of a scholarship, but thought the opportunity was too good to pass up.
"I'm from Arizona, so growing up that's the team I've always wanted to play for," Barnes said. "It's just an amazing experience here."
Barnes played in a majority of ASU's games during his first year on campus, but did not play many minutes and was unable to break into the Sun Devils' guard-heavy rotation.
Barnes's hard work during that season earned him a scholarship, but Sendek said even then it didn't appear as though he would be more than a bench player.
"In his first year he worked so hard, and distinguished himself in so many wonderful ways, that we gave him a scholarship, still not thinking that this guy would end up being an integral part of our team's rotation," Sendek said.
Then, during his second year, Barnes found his role.
Starting about midway through the 2013-14 season, Barnes started getting increased minutes and quickly became a fan favorite.
"Last year, around December, he broke out," Sendek said. "He made the move from the scout team to our rotation and, right now, he's as good a leader as we have."
Initially Barnes chose to forgo his final year of eligibility and was honored as a part of Senior Day a year ago, but ended up returning to make one more run in the maroon and gold. Barnes said he is looking forward to his final go at Wells Fargo Arena with the guys he's been with for his entire ride.
"I'm excited," Barnes said. "I've been with Jon and (junior forward) Eric (Jacobsen) pretty much my whole time here, so I'm excited. And Shaq (McKissic), I'm glad he got to come back and I'm glad I get to finish it with those guys."
Sendek said Barnes is the prototypical underdog story and that's one of the reasons that crowds at Wells Fargo Arena have gravitated toward the young man who grew up minutes down the road.
"If you love underdogs, if you love stories of great perseverance, if that's your thing, than you can't help but want to cheer for Bo Barnes," Sendek said.
This year, Barnes has shown a propensity for taking, and making, the big shot. He hit a long 3-pointer to effectively put away ASU's upset win over rival Arizona and shot 8-for-8 from the free throw line to ice the game. Later in February, Barnes had an even longer 3-pointer to cap the Sun Devils' win over UCLA on James Harden Night.
The final senior is the one who has been with the program for the shortest amount of time, but may have made the largest impact on the fans watching him.
Forward Shaquielle McKissic had a tough journey to even make it to ASU, a journey that has been rehashed many times, but has not lost its effect on audiences. Sendek appreciates what his star senior has gone through to be at this point more than nearly anyone else.
"He's overcome so much adversity," Sendek said. "He's taken such a fortuitous path to this point, it's just a great story."
Last season was initially supposed to be McKissic's lone season at ASU, but he filed a hardship petition with the NCAA and was allowed to play a second year for the Sun Devils.
Sendek lauded Steve Webb, ASU's Executive Director of Athletics Compliance, for getting the waiver accepted and allowing McKissic to extend his career to a second season with the Sun Devils.
McKissic said he is happy with how his time in Tempe has gone and wouldn't change any of it.
"I came here and had an awesome experience," McKissic said. "I don't regret anything that's happened and I'm excited for the end of the season. I'm just looking forward to right now and I really don't think about anything in the future. I had a helluva time playing for Coach Herb."
McKissic credits Sendek with his maturity on and off the court during his stay in Tempe and noted that he has found himself saying a lot of the things that Sendek says to him and the team in everyday life.
"I just feel like coach Herb has kind of mentored my life since I got here, barely, the wheels were about to fall off the car, but, once I got here, he kind of just tightened up the bolts," McKissic said. "Everything that I've learned from him in these last two years, just off the court stuff, I can handle it the same way."
Sendek has seen that change in McKissic as well.
"He's like a different person," Sendek said. "He just has blossomed as a young man."
Through it all, McKissic said he wants to be remembered by the fans more for what he represents than anything else.
"Just as a fighter, y'know," McKissic said. "Somebody who came and gave it their all. Completely unselfish. Some guy come to this level and they have a different type of motive, and it comes back to bite them in the end, but hopefully everything I've done here will show guys that you don't have to average 39 points a game to make a stamp."
Sendek is proud of his players' accomplishments on the court, but even more so their feats off of it. All three players have earned their degrees while playing for the Sun Devils, something many other programs can't say.
"Since we've been together at ASU, every single one of our seniors has graduated," Sendek said. "In fact, Bo Barnes will earn his master's degree, and I believe that's the third guy in the last four years to earn a master's degree from our basketball program."
The three seniors have combined for 24.3 points per game, which is more than a third of the team's offensive production, but the players' value is worth more than stats would say. The leadership that the three have brought will be invaluable moving forward for this program for years to come.
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