After a disappointing end to their regular season last Friday in Las Vegas, ASU received a second chance Sunday when they earned a No. 11 seed in the NCAA Tournament and a trip to Dayton, Ohio to face the St. John’s Red Storm in a First Four showdown on Wednesday.
The Sun Devils' inclusion in the First Four signals just how close ASU was to falling out of the tournament and presents a unique challenge for the team as they must regroup and head halfway across the country on relatively short notice.
“(We have) Unbelievable excitement, and an eagerness to get better and to seize the opportunity,” said redshirt senior Zylan Cheatham, commenting on his emotions following the announcement of ASU’s inclusion in the tournament. “All my guys, we’re just excited. That’s the best adjective I can give you at this point.”
The Sun Devils are no stranger to the First Four, having lost in last year’s matchup to the Syracuse Orange. This year ASU looks to flip the script against the Red Storm (21-12), who finished the season as losers in five of their final seven matchups, including a 32-point blowout loss to the Marquette Golden Eagles in the quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament.
“They’re very much a perimeter-oriented team, a very free-flowing team, a team that can go on runs because they can score in volume,” coach Bobby Hurley said. “They have a lot of tough kids and they can really go off the dribble, so our defense is going to have our hands full.”
St. John’s is led by electric junior guard Shamorie Ponds, who leads the Red Storm in scoring with an average of 19.5 points per game while still averaging 5.2 assists and 4.2 rebounds per contest.
The 6’1 Brooklyn, New York native is a dynamic scorer with a lightning quick first step and an arsenal of ankle-breaking crossovers and shifty scoop layups. In last year’s 82-70 loss to the Sun Devils, Ponds put up 19 points on 6-23 shooting.
He’s scored over 35 points on three separate occasions this season, all St. John’s wins, and figures to be the focal point of ASU’s defensive strategy come Wednesday. He will likely be shadowed by freshman guard Luguentz Dort, providing an exciting individual matchup between what is likely two future NBA players.
If ASU is able to get past St. John’s, they would then travel to Tulsa, Oklahoma to play their first-round matchup against the No. 6 seed Buffalo Bulls on Friday. Buffalo, Hurley's previous employer, went 31-3 this season and handily defeated the Bowling Green Falcons in last week’s MAC championship game.
With a win, ASU’s path to a national championship would weave through Anaheim with possible matchups against the No. 3 seed Texas Tech Red Raiders, the No. 2 seed Michigan Wolverines, or the No. 1 seed Gonzaga Bulldogs in the Sun Devils' pursuit of the school’s first-ever Final Four appearance.
The feeling has long resided within this year’s ASU team that this squad could be different, that this could be the team to break all the molds, to accomplish feats never thought imaginable just a few seasons ago.
These current Sun Devils are looking to become the first ASU team to win a tournament game since 2009, and the first to advance to a second weekend since 1995. With expectations sky high, there’s no better time than the present for a deep ASU tournament run.
“You know how much work you’ve put in from July right through now, and it’s all to give yourself an opportunity to try and win every week,” Hurley said. “There’s only 68 teams that have a chance to win a championship, and that’s what’s driving us right now.”