PALO ALTO, Calif. — Bobby Hurley stood outside the visitors’ locker room at Maples Pavilion last week, contemplating a dream season turned turbulent in recent weeks.
His Arizona State Sun Devils had started a wholly unexpected 12-0, but after losing to Stanford on this night they had dropped four of their past six. They had a losing record in the Pac-12. ASU hadn’t won consecutive games since Dec. 19 and 22, and Hurley was assessing what had changed.
“I just wish,” he said, staring at the floor, “that there was no Christmas.”
Unlike the Grinch, whose heart grew three sizes one Christmas Day, Bobby Hurley’s shrank.
It was classic Hurley humor, dark and dour, a sky-is-falling exaggeration of the program’s plight. And it generated a good laugh from nearby ASU staffers.
“Yeah,” one remarked. “F— Santa.”
When the Hurley men lose, they lose with the kind of angst that would be alarming if it weren’t so funny. Father Bob, the retired high school coach at Jersey City St. Anthony, set the morose tone after defeat during his day. Now sons Danny, head coach at Rhode Island, and Bobby have their own bouts of self-flagellation and lamentation.
Nobody loses like the Hurleys. Which is probably a big reason why they do it so rarely.
Bob Hurley was one of the great high school coaches in the history of the sport, a massive winner who sent an army of players into the college ranks. Among those were his sons, who now have a remarkable distinction: their teams are both ranked in the AP Top 25, Arizona State (15-4) at No. 21 and Rhode Island (16-3) at No. 24.
When you consider how rare it is for either program historically to be ranked, you realize the accomplishment to date. Before this season, the Sun Devils hadn’t been ranked since 2009. The Rams’ made a brief top 25 appearance last season, but prior to that hadn’t cracked the rankings since 2008. Both are in good shape to make the NCAA tournament, something ASU last accomplished in 2014 and URI has done just once this century.
All things considered, not exactly a season worth canceling Christmas over.
Still, these are the Hurleys. They can suffer with the best of them. And heading into his team’s home weekend series against Utah (Thursday) and Colorado (Saturday), Bobby is busy trying to figure out how to pump some helium back into ASU’s leaking balloon.
The night after the Stanford loss, he stayed up late in the Palo Alto Sheraton lobby going back over the game with his assistants. Early the next morning, he pounded out three cathartic miles on the treadmill in 21 minutes – a torrid pace for a 46-year-old. But he wasn’t ready to watch tape of the game, not yet.
First, there would be a long phone call with Danny – a ritual the brothers have maintained since they both became head coaches. Typically, the losing sibling pours out his frustrations while the other tries to look on the elusive bright side. This is Hurley family therapy.
But Bobby generally avoids heaping criticism and blame on his players after defeats. The all-time Duke great doesn’t beat them up nearly as much as he beats up himself.
And on the day after the Stanford loss, with a Saturday game against California still more than 48 hours away, he arrived at a decision: the team would go tour Alcatraz and not practice. They would rest mind and body and hit the reset button, rather than trying to grind their way back onto a hot streak.
“We’ve regressed some in league play,” Hurley said. “We’re struggling. We have to circle the wagons now. We are a good team; at the moment, we’re just not what we were.”
What the Sun Devils were in November and December was a major revelation. When they beat Kansas State and Xavier in Las Vegas, notice was served that ASU was a tournament contender. When they followed that up with a shocking upset at then-No. 2 Kansas, then three more wins to reach 12-0 for the first time in school history, soaring to No. 3 in the AP poll for the first time since 1963, Arizona State was the pre-Christmas story of the season.
They were a four-guard symphony of splashy shooting and daring drives, accompanied by crisp passing and all-out hustle. Seniors Tra Holder, Shannon Evans and Kodi Justice, buttressed by freshman Remy Martin, all take more than 20 percent of ASU’s shots and three of the four have accounted for 20 percent or more of the team’s assists.
They were, in sum, playing like a bunch of Bobby Hurleys.
“I just want these guys to play freely and attack and not look over their shoulder,” he said.
Said the elder Hurley of his son’s team: “They bought into this play-like-a-maniac style. He’s just put his best players out there, even if it’s four guards a lot of the time. A lot of teams want the guards to be the mailman – just bring the ball up and distribute the mail. Those four guys do not have the mailman role. They have the freedom to do a lot of things.
“It’s been amazing to watch. I’m not sure how they’ve gotten away with it.”
It was especially amazing when you consider the disheveled state of the program when Hurley arrived in 2015. Hurley somehow got his first team off to a 10-3 start, then it crashed in Pac-12 play, going 5-13.
The second year wasn’t much better: a 15-18 record overall, 7-11 in the league. Hurley had zero depth to work with. In a late-February home game against UCLA, he played four players the full 40 minutes and another 39. The bench contributed exactly one minute of playing time.
“Bobby was an option to play that day,” Bob joked. “That’s not good at all.
“It was alarming how unathletic their team was. I was seriously worried. How in God’s name are you going to build something in that league? But now they’ve come a long way. They have young guys who are very excited to play a very aggressive, fast-paced game.”
They’ve come far enough to dream up a brand name to fit the style. Arizona State players, staffers and fans can often be seen wearing shirts these days that read “Guard U.”
This is the first time the Sun Devils have had anything sexy to market since James Harden was in school – and the result has been the two largest home crowds in the past eight seasons. A bland arena once only known for its “Curtain of Distraction” is now a legitimate distraction for visitors.
And the buzz is building on the recruiting trail as well. The latest proof came when power forward Taeshon Cherry, the No. 33 senior nationally according to Rivals.com, committed to Arizona State last week.
But last week in the Bay Area, after a close loss to Stanford, it took some persistence to remind Bobby Hurley that the end of times was not at hand. He was in need of that therapy phone call to Danny, and some getaway time at Alcatraz.
“We’re going to lock up the way we’ve been playing,” Bobby said. “And leave it there.”
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