Arizona State makes its case for being the best team in college basketball

Though the occasion is rare, whenever Kansas trips itself into a home loss the story is usually about the Jayhawks. Not today. The story of Sunday -- and one of the biggest, most surprising stories of college basketball's first month of this season -- is about Arizona State

The Sun Devils' 95-85 victory inside intimidating Allen Fieldhouse might be the best road triumph in program history. It was the team's first win on the road against a top-five opponent in 19 years. The 16th-ranked Sun Devils impressively downed the No. 2 Jayhawks by shooting, slicing and slashing their way past a KU club that almost never gets beat like that. For Kansas, which will plunge in the polls after also losing to unranked Washington earlier in the week, it's time for reassessment.

For Arizona State, now comes a rare national moment in the spotlight. The program has never been in this position at this point on the calendar. College basketball pundits will debate whether ASU is the best team in the sport. That hasn't happened in decades, if it ever did.

But, seriously, Arizona State (!) could be the best team in college basketball. At the very least, it has a convincing argument for carrying the strongest resume as of Dec. 10. 

This is only the second 9-0 start in school history. The first one came in 1974-75, in a sports media climate drastically different from the one we live in now. ASU has never had this much good press so soon into a campaign. Plus, that '74-75 team (led by former Memphis Grizzlies and Brooklyn Nets coach Lionel Hollins) didn't put 100-plus points on a top-20 team the way ASU dropped 102 on No. 15 Xavier on Nov. 24. That ASU squad from the '70s didn't snap off a six-game streak of 90-plus points scored the way this one has. In fact, no Pac-12 team in the past 20 years has done that.

The Kansas win is the defining moment of the season so far and will surely signal a critical moment of arrival by the time we get to March. The victory validates ASU as a Pac-12 contender (Arizona's in-state rivalry just got very interesting), a viable Final Four candidate in the long view and brings to the table evidence that this could go down as one of the best seasons in the 106-year history of the program.

All of this is more cherished by Arizona State because it is not a school with basketball pedigree. James Harden has blossomed into a top-five player in the NBA, but the program itself has just been a generic power-conference entity for much of the modern era of college hoops. Prior to popping into the rankings a couple of weeks ago, the last time the Sun Devils had a number next to their name was the 2008-09 season. From 1994-95 until 2017-18, ASU was ranked in only four of those seasons. 

Now Bobby Hurley's team is poised to spike up the polls. A top-five ranking/reward is not out of the question, not with the valuable commodity of a road victory like what the Sun Devils just landed on Sunday. Don't be shocked if no other team wins at the Phog this season. And if this 9-0 start leads to a top-five ranking come Monday afternoon, it will mark the team's highest since 1981. If the AP voters are even more aggressive and declare Arizona State as a top-three team, the ranking will match team's highest ever, dating all the way back to 1963. 

It has never been ranked No. 2, it has never been ranked No. 1 (too much to ask?). History is in Hurley's grasp. As coach of this turnaround, he's guiding one of the feel-good stories in a season that needs it. He needed it, too. Hurley took this job in 2015. This is his third season in Tempe. If you think this surge to national prominence is coming sooner than expected, you don't know Hurley. 

Over the past two seasons, it has been his brother Dan, coach at Rhode Island, who has had to be the reasonable one. The brothers have become known for how hot they can boil in-game, but clearly the passion is plugging into something vital. Dan Hurley took Rhode Island to last year's NCAA Tournament, the school's first in a generation. Now Bobby, after coaching Buffalo to its first NCAA Tournament in school history, is seemingly on his way to getting ASU to only its third Big Dance showing in 15 seasons. 

Those phone calls still linger in Dan Hurley's mind. Speaking to CBS Sports by phone Sunday night, Hurley recalled the stressed-out conversations he had with his brother in Year 1 and Year 2 at Arizona State. Brutal losses and the therapeutic phone heart-to-hearts that followed: a 72-58 loss at Kentucky in Year 1, then the notorious 115-69 embarrassment to UK in the Bahamas last season; an 81-46 sledgehammering at the hands of Utah; a non-competitive 97-64 beat-down courtesy of Purdue

"I would have to reason with him," Dan Hurley said. " 'You're in year one of building a program. You're not going to win 25 games. You shouldn't have scheduled like this in your non-conference. You guys are young and growing and going to get there, but it's not going to happen like you're used to it happening.' "

Now Arizona State is taking out its anger on opponents. The Sun Devils also have victories against Kansas State and St. John's, both of which qualify as top-50 wins heading into Monday.

"For a guy like Bob, who's as competitive and as driven and determined, these two years he's had to show an amazing amount of patience and growth," Dan Hurley said. "It hasn't been easy. He didn't take over a turn-key, top-of-the-conference program." 

Behind the relentless play of seniors Tra Holder and Shannon Evans, plus the promising talent of freshman Remy Martin (the trio combined for 72 points 14 assists and seven steals in the Kansas game), Arizona State is ranked in the top five in offensive efficiency. Another player critical to this revolution is senior Kodi Justice. Evans came over from Buffalo with Hurley, while Holder and Justice have grown into different players from who they were three years ago. 

"That's what I thought of today," Dan Hurley said. "Even talking to him before the game ... they've all lost together for a couple of years -- and now they're taking it out on people. They took it out on Kansas today. They were relentless with the way they attacked the game, it's almost like they're building with this fuel and they're exploding."

Arizona State is up to 91.8 points per game. Its defense is average, but it hasn't mattered so far. Holder (20.3 ppg) has been as good as any player not named Ayton in the Pac-12. He has as much offensive aptitude around him as any team in the league -- maybe the country. Kansas was shockingly bad on defense Sunday, and without depth down low Arizona State showed it has a backcourt that looks better than Kansas'. How many times has that ever been the case?

The Sun Devils have earned this. They appear legit. Now comes the part most coaches claim is even harder: winning with the target firmly pinned to the back. Only seven teams remain in Div. I men's college basketball without a loss: ASU, Florida State, Georgetown, Miami (Fla.), Mississippi State, TCU, Villanova. Accounting for strength of schedule, Arizona State is the most surprising member of that club -- and it has a chance to wind up as better than all of those schools, and really could be the best team in college basketball right now.

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Kansas fans (and mascots) at Allen Fieldhouse could hardly believe their eyes Sunday. USATSI
CBS Sports Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning senior writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. He's in his eighth season covering college basketball for CBS, and also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics,... Full Bio

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