TEMPE, Ariz. — You would barely recognize the Arizona State men’s basketball team these days. The Sun Devils bear little resemblance to the club that dropped the opening game of the Bobby Hurley era to Sacramento State on Nov. 13 at Wells Fargo Arena.
If not for that game, in fact, the Sun Devils (6-2) might very well be ranked among the nation’s top 25 teams. Their only loss since then came in overtime to Marquette in the final of the Legends Classic in Brooklyn, New York — a game in which four Sun Devils fouled out, leading Hurley to take some not-so-subtle jabs at the early-season officiating he has seen.
Since then, the Devils have posted wins over North Carolina State, Creighton and then-No. 18 Texas A&M.
“We have a good level of toughness and our defense has been key in our wins,” said Hurley, the Sun Devils coach. “Our defense is playing as well as it has been all year.”
The win over the Aggies was a particularly proud moment for Hurley just three days after a road win at Creighton.
“To be able to bounce back emotionally with the travel associated and a couple days later to beat a nationally ranked team is impressive,” he said.
Arizona State’s competition takes a giant step up to elite status on Saturday when the Devils travel to Lexington, Kentucky to face No. 5 Kentucky at Rupp Arena. The Wildcats (7-1) entered the season as one of three odds-on favorites (North Carolina and Virginia were the others) to win the NCAA Championship this season. Kentucky bounced back from its first loss of the season (87-77 at UCLA on Dec. 3) to defeat Eastern Kentucky on Wednesday.
Entering the game, ASU ranks 36th in the nation in rebounding margin (plus 8) and offensive rebounds per game 14.25. That has been a strength all season, but in its most recent win, ASU held Texas A&M to just 19 points in the first half of a 67-54 win and 31.1 percent field-goal shooting for the game.
“We’re going to need to bottle that up because we have a tough one coming up here on Saturday,” Hurley said.
Hurley is fortunate in one respect with the roster he inherited this season from Herb Sendek.
“We’ve been in a lot of hard games, we have an older team and the guys have a lot of experience,” he said.
Nothing can prepare the Devils for the type of atmosphere they are set to encounter in Lexington, however. With a capacity of 23,500, Rupp Arena is the largest indoor arena by capacity in the United States, and the Wildcats are second in the nation in college basketball home attendance.
Couple that with Kentucky’s storied tradition and its fair to say the Devils are facing the toughest test they will face all season. They may have to look to their coach for direction.
In an interview with Arizona Sports this week, Hurley was asked about his famous battles with Kentucky while he played at Duke, including Christian Laettner’s buzzer-beating shot to defeat the Wildcats in the 1992 East Regional in Philadelphia, and advance to the NCAA Final Four.
Fortunately for Hurley he has already been to Rupp Arena since his playing days ended. Hurley was Buffalo’s coach last season and lost to the Wildcats at Rupp last season. Before the game, the entire crowd booed him when he was announced as “Buffalo Bobby Hurley.”
“It can’t be any worse than last year when I went in,” Hurley quipped. “(Kentucky) coach (John) Calipari did yell at his crowd after the game for doing that to me so maybe they won’t be as bad this time.”