In a top-heavy Pac-12, any successful team’s resume can punch a ticket to the NCAA Tournament. The ASU Men’s Basketball team may not be a contender to win the conference, but its demanding schedule filled with tournament teams could help secure an at-large bid.
The Sun Devils' non-conference slate includes four teams that appeared in the 2023 NCAA Tournament. Depending on its performance at the Vegas Showdown this week, ASU may even play NC State, another tournament team.
“We've had a pretty consistent commitment to try to schedule well and play hard games,” head coach Bobby Hurley said. “I don't think that that's any difference this year in terms of those specifically neutral site opportunities.”
The Sun Devils schedule is still challenging when adding matchups against less successful programs like the University of San Diego. ASU entered the season with the 27th hardest schedule in the country, which is now currently ranked 25th in the NCAA by RPI.
The team’s onslaught of tough opponents began against Mississippi State in Chicago. The Bulldogs came into the matchup on a non-conference hot streak as winners of 11 of their last 13 games against non-SEC teams. Unfortunately for the Sun Devils, Mississippi State stayed hot and dominated Hurley’s outmatched team.
“Mississippi State was a very disruptive team on defense,” Hurley said. “It was not the greatest matchup right out of the chute. We didn't handle it very well at the offensive end.”
Although it still counts, the loss to Mississippi State is starting to look better on ASU’s resume. The Bulldogs are currently 5-0 and were just ranked No. 25 in the latest AP Top 25 Men’s College Basketball Poll. Mississippi State also has the fifth-hardest strength of schedule in the country and could help ASU sneak into the tournament by playing well the rest of the season.
After its season-opening loss, ASU got better against the next tournament team. The Sun Devils hosted Texas Southern University for their home opener and won 63-52. The win looks good in the box score but comes with an asterisk, as the Tigers are now 0-4.
This year’s win came after ASU lost to TSU 67-66 in overtime last season. Much like this year’s team, that Tigers squad was also winless going into that game and finished the season at 14-21. Texas Southern did, however, catch a break in the usually one-bid Southwestern Athletic Conference to qualify for the NCAA Tournament, its seventh appearance since 2014.
Hurley seemed set on playing teams from the best conferences. ASU’s final stretch of non-conference games includes a rematch against TCU. Sun Devil fans may remember the Horned Frogs’ buzzer-beating floater that ended ASU’s season in the NCAA Tournament last season.
ASU may be looking for revenge, but TCU will put up a fight. The Horned Frogs are on track for their third straight tournament appearance. They are currently 4-0 and are receiving votes in the AP poll.
Rounding out ASU’s matchups against tournament teams is a not-so-neutral site matchup against Northwestern at the Footprint Center in Phoenix. The Wildcats are currently 4-1 and their only loss is to none other than Mississippi State.
TCU and Northwestern call the Big 12 and Big Ten home, respectively. According to NET rankings, the two conferences are rank as the best in the NCAA. A win against TCU and/or Northwestern could be like the team’s win against No. 20 Michigan last season, which boosted its resume come March.
The pair of crucial games will also give ASU a sense of its ceiling once roster roles are determined and Hurley figures out which transfers will make the biggest contributions.
“There are a lot of opportunities against other power conference programs to not only get quality wins but then also test yourself so you have a feel for what you have,” Hurley said.
After non-conference play, ASU will face even greater foes in the Pac-12. The Sun Devils last Pac-12 run will include six regular season games against UCLA, USC and UA, all of whom qualified for the tournament last season.
Yet ASU still needs to improve its play before taking on the conference’s best teams. Hurley’s offense must find its rhythm, as the team has shot just 37% from the floor and 59% from the free-throw line through its first three games.
“The tough schedule will prepare us for tough games because every game in the Pac-12 might be a battle,” junior guard Jamiya Neal said. “So why not battle early, so you can see what we got. I like our schedule. I think we can compete.”
The team’s confidence may be warranted. History has shown that tough schedules helped ASU to the NCAA Tournament when the team was far from the top of the Pac-12.
The Sun Devils' last two tournament appearances in 2019 and 2023 came when they had a strength of schedules ranked in the top 60. Once higher-ranked teams clinch automatic bids, ASU is in a better spot to receive a bid. Now, the team is amid its hardest schedule under Hurley’s reign, and is looking forward to potential postseason play.
“It's a work in progress putting everything together,” senior forward Zane Meeks said. “By the time March and April roll around, you want to be firing on all cylinders.”
Edited by Alfred Smith III, Walker Smith and Shane Brennan