I know the non-conference schedule is a virtual “Who’s That?” of college basketball.
I know golden opportunities against the likes of Creighton, DePaul, Oregon and Arizona have slipped through their fingers. I know the bracketologists who crunch every conceivable number have them dancing on the bubble. The numbers show a razor-thin margin of error, even with 18 wins in the first 23 games and an impressive first lap in the Pac-12 conference.
But from where I sit, Arizona State is an NCAA tournament team.
This is a team that was picked to finish 11th in the conference. A team that was expected to struggle through a mediocre menu of opponents early before providing easy fodder for conference foe seeking to pad their own resumes. You want exciting basketball? Keep driving south.
But they didn’t struggle in November and December, although one more win would have been huge. Fodder? Ask UCLA. How about Colorado? Ask Oregon, which escaped with a win in Eugene. When it comes to exciting basketball? Well, watching Jahii Carson with the basketball in his hands takes care of all that.
Carson can’t get ASU to The Dance by himself. He can’t win games by himself, although last weekend at Washington and Washington State he surely gave it the ol’ college try.
But when Carrick Felix is humming, when the inside presence of Jordan Bachynski and Russian Ruslan Pateev are blocking shots and finishing feeds, when Evan Gordon takes advantage of distracted defenders to be an offensive presence, the Sun Devils are a handful for any team.
Give Arizona credit for handing the rest of the conference a blueprint on how to put ASU in its place. But even with the knowledge in hand, getting your arms around Carson and friends has proven to be a challenge.
When you have an orchestrator like Carson on the floor for 40 minutes and the offense dictates off his reads and reactions, scoring runs naturally follow and the flow of the game is always at an entertaining pace. Watching him take over a game the way he did at both Washington State and Washington – that’s the kind of basketball you want to see in March.
There are drawbacks. The Devils have little depth and when fouls trouble comes — especially when it was Carson against Arizona — the drop-off is quick and painful. Felix has been the Pac-12 Player of the Week three times, but when he’s not that player he can sometimes shoot his team into a hole. Bachynski struggled against Cal and consistency is an issue.
The Pac-12 will get four, maybe five tournament bids. For the Sun Devils, finishing on the road at USC, at UCLA and at Arizona, while a golden opportunity, is also a mine field. Two losses in the final three games, even to well-regarded opponents don’t bode well for a bubble team.
But the Sun Devils have found a way so far. Five of the last seven are on the road, but four wins might be enough. For the sake of basketball fans everywhere, let’s hope it is.
We deserve to see as much of Carson as we can get in March.
Jerry Brown is a contributing columnist who appears every Sunday in the Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.