Sun Devils’ added size ratchets expectations

TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona State made its first trip to the NCAA Tournament in four years last season behind a trio of free-wheeling, free-shooting senior guards.

The run was a year ahead of schedule, in some respects.

The Sun Devils had plenty of talent with Tra Holder, Shannon Evans II and Kodi Justice back, yet the breakthrough year was supposed to be this season.

Now that it’s here and Arizona State has already ended its NCAA drought, expectations are on the rise in the desert.

The Sun Devils finally have size in the frontcourt, are bigger at the guard positions and have the confidence that comes with playing in the postseason.

“I think they’re hungry,” Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley said. “We’re not a program that I think just expects to be anything given to us or it’s our right to go to the NCAA Tournament or to have a great season. So the guys are pretty focused and determined.”

The Sun Devils finished 20-12 a year ago and lost to Syracuse in the First Four round of the NCAA Tournament.

Despite losing the three senior guards, Arizona State is hoping for a deeper March run.

The Sun Devils will certainly be bigger, with Zylan Cheatham (San Diego State) and Rob Edwards (Cleveland State) eligible after sitting out as transfers last season.

Arizona State has a frontcourt that includes the 6-foot-8 Cheatham, 7-foot Serbian freshman Uros Plavsic, 6-10 De’Quon Lake, 6-9 Vitaliy Shibel and bruising 6-8 sophomore Romello White.

Mickey Mitchell, an athletic 6-7 forward, has length, athletic ability and is an adept passer. Taeshon Cherry, at 6-8, is a five-star freshman.

Sparkplug point guard Remy Martin returns and will be joined by a group that has taken the Guard U nickname from last season and turned it into Big Guard U. Edwards is 6-4, so is freshman Luguentz Dort and Finnish freshman Elias Valtonen is 6-7.

No longer will the Sun Devils be overmatched inside or forced to defend much bigger players.

“We’ve got some bigger guards, guys with size who can handle the ball and make plays,” Cheatham said.

A few more things to look for from Arizona State in 2018-19:

MARTIN RETURNS: Martin was a burst of energy every time he took the floor as a freshman last season, making flashy plays on offense, nodding his bouncy hair in approval after frustrating opposing point guards on defense. Martin averaged 9.6 points and 2.5 assists coming off the bench last season. He will run the show as a sophomore, so expect those numbers to go up.

IMPROVING D: The biggest area Arizona State’s added size should help is on defense. The Sun Devils opened the season 12-0 in nonconference last season, but found matchup problems with their guard-oriented roster once the Pac-12 schedule started. The added length inside will prevent the post matchup problems of a year ago, when the 6-5 Justice sometimes found himself guarding players six and seven inches taller. The bigger guards will put more pressure on opposing offenses and allow more switching without creating a huge mismatch. The size also should be a big boost on the glass, where Arizona State has struggled.

DOTING ON DORT: The Sun Devils already have an elite defending guard in Martin and Dort could team with him to make up one of the Pac-12’s best defensive duos. A five-star recruit, Dort had multiple offers before deciding to play for Hurley. His new coach has touted the physical freshman’s defensive abilities since the day he arrived in Tempe from Montreal and, at 215 pounds, Dort should have the strength to make an easy transition to college.

SCHEDULING: Hurley has been aggressive with scheduling since arriving in the desert in 2015 and this year is no different. The Sun Devils beat Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse last season and have a rematch with the now No. 1 Jayhawks on Dec. 22. Arizona State also plays No. 7 Nevada, Georgia and Mississippi State in nonconference.