An Arizona State roster already thin on talent and depth took a big hit this week when highly touted freshman wing Sam Cunliffe announced he'd left the program.
News of Cunliffe's departure came just days after the Sun Devils' best win of the season, a 74-63 win at San Diego State. But it didn't take ASU second-year coach Bobby Hurley by surprise, even though there was hope that the team's apparent progress versus the Aztecs would lead to a different outcome.
“It’s something that we were working through for a short period of time," Hurley said. "It was not completely unexpected. There were some conversations had leading into the decision. The timing and way that it happened was not expected, based on the way we had won and the progress that we made in that game. But it does not come as a complete surprise to our staff.”
Cunliffe, a 6-foot-6, started in all 10 of his games as a Sun Devils and averaged 9.6 points and 4.8 rebounds in 25.4 minutes. He arrived on the ASU campus as the third highest rated high school signee in the last decade, No. 45 overall in the 2016 class.
At 6-4 overall, the Sun Devils were already forecast to finish near the bottom of the Pac-12 this season with Cunliffe on the team. Now that he's gone, a team that has played at most eight men in its rotation will have almost nothing to draw from off the bench.
Perhaps even more problematic for Hurley and ASU, it's a setback for the future. Cunliffe was a cornerstone type recruit, Hurley's highest rated signee, and someone the Sun Devils were planning to build around into 2017-18.
“It just makes us work harder to try and identify the right people that want to be here, that appreciate the opportunity of being here, that don’t feel it’s beneath them to be here and want to be a part of winning championships," Hurley said." As a product of winning championships and contending and being a winning program, then the individual glory comes there as a result of that. I hope we can do a good job to find those guys that want to do it here."
While the transfer plans of Cunliffe puts ASU in a lurch in the short-term, Hurley said he doesn't begrudge the decision of his signature signee, and still believes he's got a bright future.
“I sincerely do wish Sam the best in finding his happiness playing basketball," he said. "It’s kind of my message to players. It was a great four years when I played (at Duke), the greatest four years of your life. You want to be happy. You want to try to get the most out of it. It wasn’t my decision. I loved coaching him. I enjoyed having him in the program. I enjoyed getting to know his family. I think the potential is definitely there. Everything I’ve said about Sam could still be achieved individually wherever he ends up.”
A transfer epidemic across the country is something ASU's no stranger to. It has been on both ends of the spectrum, using some high-profile transfers to help its efforts in recent years, and also seen some of its more highly regarded prospects depart prematurely.
“It’s happening everywhere,” Hurley said. “I think just about every program deals with it. I think there were around 700 transfers last year. A majority of them come from guys who have been in the program one, two years and maybe aren’t getting the playing time and that kind of thing so it just doesn’t work out. It’s part of the culture. Players have options, and they have a right to do what’s in their best interest.”
ASU (6-4) will host New Mexico State (9-2) on Saturday at Wells Fargo Arena at 6 p.m.