No. 18 ASU men’s basketball will begin its season on Nov. 25 versus the Rhode Island Rams as part of the Empire Classic, which will take place at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut.
The field will also include No. 3 Villanova and Boston College, who will play each other following the Sun Devils' season opener on Wednesday.
ASU originally planned to open its season in the same tournament against No. 2 Baylor instead of Rhode Island. However, after Baylor coach Scott Drew announced he had tested positive for COVID-19 and would not travel with the team, ASU withdrew from that matchup Sunday.
The Sun Devils still planned to travel to Connecticut to find another opponent upon arrival, as Mohegan Sun is set to host a number of events simultaneously. Then, Baylor withdrew from the event Monday, prompting Rhode Island to replace the Bears and allowing ASU to rejoin the field.
In recent years, the Rams have been one of the Atlantic 10’s most consistent teams, reaching the NCAA tournament twice in the past four seasons.
In last year’s 21-win campaign, they utilized a formula similar to ASU’s, playing an up-tempo style, posting a high turnover margin and relying primarily on their perimeter players for scoring.
However, that roster has been decimated by transfers and graduations, leaving the Rams without three of their top four scorers from last season, two of whom received all-conference honors, and five of their top seven leaders in minutes played.
That exodus means Rhode Island, ranked sixth in the Atlantic 10’s preseason poll, will return 38% of its total points scored from last season, over two-thirds of which come from one man: all-conference senior guard Fatts Russell.
Standing at 5 feet 10 inches, Russell used his blend of quickness, creativity around the rim and a much improved outside shot to average 18.8 points per game last season, the highest mark of any Ram in nearly two decades.
If Rhode Island is to win, Russell will likely have to do the brunt of the work to outpace ASU’s perimeter attack, led by senior guards Remy Martin and Alonzo Verge Jr. and freshmen Josh Christopher and Marcus Bagley.
Outside of his scoring, Russell is also the Rams’ primary facilitator and a feisty defender, having averaged 2.9 steals per game last season and earning Atlantic 10 All-Defense honors.
Although, as a career 36% shooter, efficiency has never been Russell’s strength. His ability to produce as a volume scorer will be vital for a team with a largely unproven supporting cast around him.
The Rams’ next most experienced returner is junior forward Jermaine Harris, a two-year starter. However, Harris was far from crucial to the team’s success last season, playing less than 18 minutes per game and averaging 5.3 points.
Considering the dynamics of its roster, it is likely that much of Rhode Island’s production will come from transfers, namely redshirt sophomore guard Jalen Carey and sophomore center Makhi Mitchell, former four-star recruits who previously played for Syracuse and Maryland, respectively.
Carey played just two games for the Orange last season before a thumb injury prompted him to medically redshirt. However, he earned consistent rotation minutes as a freshman and, in one game, dropped 26 points, flashing the high-end scoring ability that made him such a highly-touted recruit.
Mitchell played in just 12 games for Maryland last year, starting five, before deciding to transfer to Rhode Island, along with his twin brother Makhel.
Despite his lack of production as a freshman, Makhi demonstrated a number of translatable tools in high school, including solid ball-handling and shooting to complement his athletic frame. He also fills a glaring position of need following the Rams’ loss of all-conference big man Cyril Langevine, as the Mitchell brothers are the team’s only players over 6 feet 8 inches.
Junior guard Malik Martin, a transfer from the University of Charlotte who earned Conference USA all-defense honors and shot nearly 38% from deep last season, will also likely have a role.
Considering the Rams’ roster overhaul, the Sun Devils will have limited time to prepare for a team that will look dramatically different than last season, but Bagley said weeks ago that their focus was not on any specific opponent.
“We've been focused on our game and how we can be perfect on Nov. 25,” Bagley said.
ASU coach Bobby Hurley highlighted defensive effort as a key for the team and said that while perfection will likely not be attainable, the talented Sun Devils will need to demonstrate mental toughness through those struggles to find success.
“We're not going to be perfect, especially early, and we have to be able to turn the page,” Hurley said.
With an abbreviated non-conference schedule, the stakes of each game are heightened. Although Baylor’s exit cost the Sun Devils a chance for a signature win, a victory over Rhode Island would still likely put them in position to play Villanova and possibly knock off a top-three opponent for the third time in four seasons.
“This is why I came here,” Christopher said. “Let's go ahead and see what we're made of off the rip.”
An ASU loss would set the team up to play the loser of Boston College versus Villanova in the third-place game.
They tip off against Rhode Island on Nov. 25 at 5 p.m. MST.