Matthew Tonis

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

A long road to Dayton: ASU seniors laid foundation for team’s success

DAYTON, Ohio — Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley and his three senior guards have often talked about how the last three seasons have laid the foundation for a renaissance of the basketball program.

The Sun Devils accomplished their goal of reaching the NCAA Tournament, as they will face off with the Syracuse Orange in the First Four on Wednesday.

But it was a long road to snowy Dayton, starting all the way back in 2015.

Before there was Hurley, there were Tra Holder and Kodi Justice. Both joined the program the season following ASU’s most recent 20-win season and NCAA Tournament appearance. They saw Herb Sendek — the coach who recruited them — fired, and were left wondering where the program was headed.

Joining them when Hurley arrived was Shannon Evans II, who helped Buffalo to a tournament bid the season before his transfer. He sat and watched ASU finish below .500 in his year on the sideline.

Three seasons later, though, it was this three-man backcourt that returned ASU to prominence under the tutelage of their coach and brought “Guard U” into existence. Ranking as high as No. 3 in December, the Sun Devils held on for Hurley’s first trip to the Big Dance with the Sun Devils.

“My seniors have been with me since my first year at Arizona State and have gone through some tough times,” Hurley said. “It was great to see them experience that moment on Sunday.”

But as much as it meant to the coach, it did to the players, as well.

“When I found out, I started being emotional and it was just a great day,” Holder said. “And I’m happy I’m in this position with my teammates because we worked so hard all year and I feel like we deserve it.”

After two seasons without postseason basketball in Tempe, Kodi Justice has helped revive the program he grew up watching as a fan. Even more importantly, he was a big part of what many in the program believe is a rise to national relevance that will stay for as long as Hurley does and even when he’s gone.

“To be able to see the whole process through, it means a lot to be able to see where it was to where we are now,” Justice said. “To be able to take this team to a tournament, to hopefully to be able to play more games every single night, it’s going to mean a lot to me to get on the court and keep playing.”

With each win, the proverbial foundation continued to take shape, with Holder, Evans and Justice ushering in a new generation of Sun Devils, led by freshman guard Remy Martin.

The co-Pac-12 Sixth Man of the Year has been a driving force for ASU, setting the tempo offensively and bringing a hard-nose mentality to the defensive end, leading the bench unit.

Once this run is over, though, he will take over as the pilot of Guard U, relying on lessons learned under the elder statesmen of Wells Fargo Arena.

“They made a big impact on me,” Martin said. “They’ve been in this game a lot longer than me, so they can teach me the things that can help me as a young player. They keep me motivated and keep me going.”

But before the final concrete is poured, there is more left to do.

A win over Syracuse would send ASU to Detroit for a date with No. 6 seed TCU Friday night. But for the guys without much time left in uniform, it’s all about taking things one step at a time.

“We’ve taken steps in the right direction to help get this program to levels we know it can be,” Justice said. “Making the tournament is always the biggest step, the first step to change a program, so being able to hand over the keys to some of these guys here and being able to make this tournament and allow them to experience it, it’s going to be great for their growth.”

And while ASU seems pleased enough with getting to its fifth NCAA Tournament in 25 years, there’s more to it than that. Although happy for his seniors, Hurley knows one successful year does not a program make, which is why it’s up to that next generation to carry the momentum forward into the future.

“This is the beginning hopefully for us in establishing a standard for Arizona State basketball and what we want to do and having young guys in the program now that could get to the tournament,” Hurley said. “That’s what we’re hoping to do moving forward. And these guys are the foundation for that.”

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