Column: Confidence new hallmark of Sun Devils under Bobby Hurley

Arizona State's basketball players appear to be unburdened on the court this season, seemingly as a result of first-year coach Bobby Hurley's leadership approach.

In Arizona State's 78-73 overtime loss to Marquette several weeks ago sophomore Kodi Justice came off the bench early in the first half and saw his defensive assignment run around staggered screens and hit a 3-pointer coming out of a timeout. 

Shortly after that rough introduction to the game, Justice turned the ball over and gave Marquette a breakaway going the other way. A minute later he did it again. 

Following a stoppage of play, Justice remained in the game. Such is life under first-year coach Bobby Hurley. A year ago under Herb Sendek, Justice never would have still been in the game. He might not have even taken his warm ups off the rest of the night. 

But in this game, Justice ended up playing 31 minutes and those were his only two turnovers in a nine point effort in which he made just 1 of 5 3-pointers. 

"I think it's built a lot of confidence in us," Justice said of Hurley's approach. "Maybe last year if you missed a shot here or there, you were looking over your shoulder wondering if you were coming out. Now we're just playing, going on to the next play. We know there's eight, nine guys playing We're all going to play. So don't worry about it, if you're going to miss a shot here or there, just have confidence make the next one."

Confidence has the Sun Devils 6-2 overall with back-to-back wins at Creighton and versus No. 18 Texas A&M in their last two games.

Confidence is a powerful thing. It allows players to out-perform what they'd otherwise be capable of. It makes young men want to run through a brick wall for the coaches who are fostering such sentiment. Justice isn't the only player who is feeling empowered by Hurley. Senior Willie Atwood was largely an afterthought in his first season with the Sun Devils last year under Sendek. This season, he's starting for Hurley. 

A 6-foot-7 face up power forward, Atwood made just 1 of 8 three-pointers to start the season before Hurley did something many coaches never would have and certainly not Sendek: he inserted another power forward -- junior Savon Goodman -- into the starting lineup and moved Atwood to the small forward position. Atwood has made 6 of his last 8 three-pointers and played his best basketball of the season since the move, leading the Sun Devils in scoring with 15 points against the Aggies. The solution wasn't to restrict Atwood further, but empower him to be even more relaxed.

"He was a player once himself," Atwood said. "He told us he doesn't really have restrictions on offense as long as we don't go out there playing like we're at a park or something. He just wants everything to stay tight. He wants us to be comfortable out there. You've got to have players to to make plays, that's how he wants us to play, without looking over our shoulder every time we mess up."

In an interesting juxtaposition, the Sun Devils are actually playing more freely this season from an emotional standpoint even though Hurley almost exclusively runs sets on offense and plays a scheme that isn't as open as Sendek's. But it feels more relaxed because the teams have personified their coaches. One after another, ASU players in the last week used the same word over and over: confidence. 

"I feel like playing for someone who played the game how he did, national champion, coached under (Duke's) Mike Krzyzewski, I think it just gives us a lot of confidence for the confidence he shows in us," Goodman said. "He lets us go out there and play. As long as we're playing hard and playing through our mistakes hard he's not agitated. As soon as you're not playing defense or not going as hard as he knows you can go, that's when he's going to get ticket off. The amount of confidence he puts in his players is incredible, I can't explain it."

'As long as we're playing hard' is another thing one player after another repeats. Hurley's approach is one that college players understand. It's easy for them to know if they're playing as hard as they can, and if not, that there will be repercussions. When playing time is divvied up by a morass of how execution is perceived by a coach on an ever-shifting scale that varies from one player to the next, it can be a lot more confusing, and indeed, frustrating. Those feelings then have a way of sapping confidence.

"We just want to get guys that play with max effort at both ends of the floor and go after the ball," Hurley said. "We've done that with our rebounding and how we defended Texas A&M. We have a structure and we run offense. I think guys understand their roles and what they're capable of but we want them to play freely and share the ball and play off each other. I would hope to feel like most guys play with that type of confidence on offense."

Defensive intensity and rebounding are what Hurley's hanging his hat on. He has an easily identifiable approach, something that is clearly observed with all successful major college programs. Even Sendek acknowledged the Sun Devils weren't as tough as he would have liked under his direction. But that's because you are what you do.  In the past, the Sun Devils didn't have gladiator segments of practices. You didn't see anyone bruised from a rebounding drill. There were no shoving matches that ensued from fights for the basketball. Skill and execution were thematically overriding, not blood and sweat. 

"Coach puts defense in us a lot in practice," Atwood said. "We pressure each other, go after each other, foul each other hard in practice. In the game, we try not to foul of course, but we try to be aggressive and get more turnovers and create points."

Sendek is a very good basketball coach in a strict sense of the word. He had ASU 9-9 last season in league play with four starters returning. He would have likely done well this season with the team he'd built and he deserves credit for the roster as its constructed. But at the same time it probably would have felt stuffier and more constricted even though his schemes weren't more so in that regard than Hurley's. 

Being a better coach isn't all about the Xs and Os. At the end of the day, college basketball is primarily about the Jimmies and Joes, as they say. Getting the players to be the best versions of themselves is as much if not more about having the right emotional IQ as it is about having a great basketball IQ. That's something no coach will get sorted out on a white board. 

Now the Sun Devils will get the biggest test in their challenging non-conference schedule Saturday when they play at Kentucky at 1:15 Arizona-time on ESPN.

"It'll go to a different level there," Hurley said of the environmental challenge. "The way people feel about basketball there, there's very few places in the world that could simulate that type of environment. So I think that's why it's a real challenge for our guys, our toughness, our togetherness, the composure you need. And then you have to play well, it's not just about the intangible stuff.

"We wanted to try to go to the top of the mountain and see what it's like there. Sometimes it's not always good. We're willing to go there and take the chances."

Even if it doesn't go so well for the Sun Devils, they'll probably just brush it off and be fine. It's just kind of who they're becoming now. 

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