TEMPE, Ariz. — Having missed out on the NCAA tournament after losing to UCLA in the Pac-12 tournament last week, Arizona State could have easily come out flat in Wednesday’s first-round National Invitation Tournament against Detroit Mercy. The Sun Devils’ surprisingly strong season had ended with a crushing loss in Las Vegas.
Instead, No. 3 seed ASU played like a team with nothing to lose, dominating No. 6 seed Detroit most of the way in an 83-68 win and advancing to play No. 2 seed Baylor in the next round.
“Our guys were tremendously disappointed — we were a game or two away from being in the NCAA tournament,” ASU coach Herb Sendek said. “We had some bone-crushing close losses down the home stretch. … But we have a high character team and we have excellent leadership, so they got up, dusted themselves off and played well tonight.”
The Sun Devils had flirted with their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2009 after exceeding expectations in Pac-12 play. A few hard losses scuttled their at-large chances, but the Pac-12 Tournament offered one more chance at an invite to the Big Dance.
A first-round upset of Stanford led to an impressive showing against top-seeded UCLA, but a late collapse sent the Sun Devils home as a team with only some additional games, experience and wins in college basketball’s second-tier tournament to gain.
Apparently that was enough for ASU against Detroit. The Sun Devils started a little sloppy but shifted into gear hard, creating a crooked first half stat line that included a 27-6 rebounding advantage and 46-27 over the Titans.
“That’s something we definitely wanted to do this game,” senior swingman Carrick Felix said. “We just wanted to come out with energy. A lot of guys were very excited to play.”
Felix was among the most excited for the NIT opener, as the end of his collegiate career was on the line. He finished with 21 points and seven rebounds, but his pregame speech to teammates may have been just as much a contribution.
“Carrick Felix, as he has done all year, just did a great job with his talk to the team, making sure we were ready to go,” Sendek said. “The other guys echoed what he was saying and came out and really set the tone early with our defense.”
That defense stifled a normally high-scoring Detroit team. The Titans came in averaging 78.1 points per game, eighth most in the nation, but shot just 22 percent in the first half and did not make a field goal until the 10:16 mark. ASU also held Detroit junior and Horizon League Player of the Year Ray McCallum to 16 points.
ASU returned from the locker room a little slow and sloppy — it finished with 24 turnovers — allowing Detroit to back within 10 points. The Sun Devils soon rediscovered their energy, though, and kept the Titans at arm’s length the rest of the way.
ASU point guard Jahii Carson, the Pac-12’s Co-Freshman of the Year, made school history in his 22-point effort, breaking former Sun Devil James Harden’s ASU record for 20-point games by a freshman. Wednesday was Carson’s 17th this season.
“I’m speechless about it,” Carson said. “I don’t try to go out there and get points. I just try to go out there and attack the basket.”
Like Felix, Carson made perhaps an equally valuable intangible contribution Wednesday. Rather than sulk about falling short of the NCAA Tournament, Carson approached the NIT as an opportunity and a privilege.
“We’re just blessed to be here,” Carson said. “It’s not shameful to be playing in the NIT. It’s a disappointment to not be playing in the big tournament, but we just take this for what it is, and we’re going to try to go out and win it.”
So it seems the Sun Devils do have something to lose after all. They’ll need more of the same energy Friday when they take on Baylor in Waco, Texas.
“We have a really quick turn around,” Sendek said. “Baylor is as talented as any team you’re going to find in this field and most any team in the country. We know we’ve got a heck of a challenge Friday.”