No. 18 Arizona State was eager to test itself against one of the best teams in the nation. Playing against Rhode Island is a decent substitute.
What began with the news Sunday that Baylor coach Scott Drew had tested positive for COVID-19 eventually ended with the second-ranked Bears withdrawing from the 2K Empire Sports Classic on Monday.
Meanwhile, Arizona State got on a plane to travel to Uncasville, Conn., in hopes of finding a replacement opponent. In stepped the Rams, who had been scheduled to play at the same venue Wednesday and Thursday against Stephen F. Austin and Towson.
The new matchup tips off Wednesday at the Mohegan Sun Arena.
The Sun Devils, who went 20-11 last season, have what appears to be their best group in their sixth season under coach Bobby Hurley — one good enough to win a Pac-12 title for the first time since joining the league for the 1978-79 season.
No matter the opponent, Arizona State is going to do what Arizona State does — get in transition and play fast behind a terrific backcourt.
Point guard Remy Martin and backcourt mate Alonzo Verge, both seniors, considered the NBA Draft but came back to lead a go-go attack that adds five-star recruit Josh Christopher and four-star Marcus Bagley — the brother of Sacramento Kings forward Marvin Bagley III — to the perimeter.
Martin and Verge are scorers more than shooters, but they really fill it up: Martin poured in 19.1 points per game, and Verge is one of the nation’s top players getting into the lane, as he put up 43 last season against St. Mary’s, and 26 each versus Pac-12 powers Oregon and UCLA.
The potential problem: ASU lacks proven big men.
Jalen Graham showed flashes in limited playing time last season and has to make a big leap as a sophomore. Taeshon Cherry is talented and intense but must be more reliable. Meanwhile, the Sun Devils will kick the tires on junior college transfer Chris Osten and Ukranian freshman Pavlo Dziuba.
“We’re going to need that interior presence, that rebounding, that shot-blocking at the basket and all the things that you talk about in trying to become a complete team,” Hurley said. “That’s our goal.”
The game will feature a fascinating matchup of speed on speed with Rhode Island’s Fatts Russell running with Martin.
Russell, a senior, averaged 18.8 points and 4.6 assists per game last season, when he improved his 3-point percentage from 22.3 in 2018-19 to 35.7.
There are ample questions behind Russell and the Rams, who are coming off a 21-9 season. They were picked to finish sixth in the Atlantic 10 this season in a poll of head coaches and media.
Coach David Cox is mixing in a load of transfers: guard Jalen Carey (Syracuse), guard Malik Martin (Charlotte), and big-man twins Makhi and Makhel Mitchell (Maryland), among others.
“Because we have different pieces here who are talented, it’s incumbent upon every person to sacrifice a little bit of their game for the betterment of the team,” Cox said. “They’re working through that. I’ve seen some growth.”
The winner of the ASU-Rhode Island game will play the winner of Villanova-Boston College on Thursday in the tournament’s title game. The losers play in the consolation Thursday.
–Field Level Media