Nonconference gauntlet provides opportunity for ASU men's basketball to continue momentum after fast start

When he was first hired in April, ASU men's basketball coach Bobby Hurley promised to do in Tempe what he had accomplished at Duke as a player — win championships.

While such a rapid turnaround cannot happen in his year with the Sun Devil program, he's certainly done his part to move forward through his team's first seven games. ASU, which has made the NCAA Tournament just 14 times as a program and has not made it in consecutive seasons since 1980-81, has already managed to put itself in solid positions with wins over quality opponents.

The Sun Devils rolled out their toughest non-conference slate in years, including an appearance in the Legends Classic in Brooklyn that featured LSU (which has potential No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons), Marquette and NC State. ASU made it all the way to the title game before falling to Marquette in overtime.

Wednesday, the Sun Devils got arguably their best win of the season, coming from behind to knock off perennial tournament team Creighton on the road by a score of 79-77.

ASU is now prepared to run through a two-game gauntlet unlike any it will experience this season when it faces off against back-to-back ranked opponents. 

Saturday, ASU hosts No. 18 Texas A&M, who already has a statement win under their belt with a win over now-No. 13 Gonzaga. The next week, the Sun Devils head out on the road against No. 1 Kentucky at Rupp Arena.

While neither matchup is one that experts expect ASU to win, it's time to ramp it up. Progress will be tested, and any momentum spurned from this stretch could impact the Sun Devils into conference play and even beyond, defining their season.

The challenge will be tough. The thing is, being tough is what has defined Bobby Hurley for his entire career, and it has been what has defined his program through this short period of time.

"We're a tough group," Hurley said. "We show toughness with how we rebound, especially the offensive glass. We haven't shot it great from the perimeter at times, so we've reinforced that with the guys. It's in their nature to do it, like Savon Goodman, it's in his nature to go after the ball. Willie Atwood is like that too, and Eric (Jacobsen) is a little bit nasty too ... I wouldn't call us a finesse team. We want to play tough. We want to have some blue collar in us and how we compete."

The time is now to make a push and change the complexion of the program. A win, though unlikely, in either of these games would do wonders. Heck, even leading at the half (which Hurley's Buffalo) team did last season) against Kentucky would impact the way people can look at things.

The only question is — is this the team to do it? If the Sun Devils can continue to display the determined, scrappy identity Hurley is at work building to reflect a group cast his own image, there's no better time to take the next step than right now.


Reach the reporter at fardaya@asu.edu or follow @fardaya15 on Twitter.

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