In less than 24 hours as I sit at my computer and work at this, ASU will face Clarkson in the latest biggest weekend of the season. The Sun Devils will be looking to solidify and improve on their 11th spot in the latest Pairwise Ranking (PWR) trying to make the NCAA tournament for the second straight season. As you likely know, if you are reading this, ASU made the tournament in just its third full year as a varsity program. This year, they are fighting to do it again, only now with a larger hill to climb.
First of all, being an independent and making the tournament is a feat in itself. In the modern world of college sports, not being affiliated in a conference makes survival almost impossible unless you happen to be Notre Dame football. Yes, BYU, Liberty and Army do it, but they survive for different reasons. They play as an independent, but have different affiliations that make up for it. Ask New Mexico State how easy it is for their football team. ASU is going into Clarkson with a chance to do it two years in a row, and if the chalk holds all weekend, they will need a split to stay in 11th/12th spot in the PWR. That will not be easy to do. They will be moderate to heavy favorites in the rest of their games, with no, if any margin for error. That disappeared on opening night. Had they won, they would be 7th in the PWR and we would be having a different conversation.
They are no longer under the radar. Last year, after just three years at the varsity level, they had won 21 games. Last year, their first year making the tournament they won 21 games alone. They’ve won games at Penn State, BU, Ohio State. Beaten Denver, Lowell & Quinnipiac. They were arguably the best team on campus last year. They will not sneak up on anyone.
I guess the point I’m trying to make is, we should enjoy the building process. Losing sucks, and should they not make the tournament this year, I will hate it as much as anyone that is not affiliated with the actual uniform, like the players and their families, but close. When the university stunned the world and announced they were adding varsity hockey, I expected (once the shock sort of wore off…I’m still not sure that it has) that the program would have a chance to explode, and become a legit player in college hockey. Without a revenue generating building & league (a different column, for a different day), there is no way I expected it to come this fast. It just shows you what this program can be, despite those drawbacks and some great goaltending (How’s life treating you in Bellville & the AHL, Mr. Daccord). Those drawbacks will disappear soon. Do I have inside information? No…but if you pay attention to the words that have been used by Coach Powers, when asked about a building, they have changed recently. Once that gets announced, the league will follow. I know and understand the mindset of believing it when seeing those actual shovels actually go in the ground. Everyone has said that ASU will be in somewhere once the building is open…my guess is that whatever league invites ASU in, would be willing to deal with friendly confines of Oceanside for one season.
Another sign. I won’t mention the player’s name, because I don’t think he has officially signed his letter of intent (LOI), but he is considered a 4 to 5-star recruit who switched his commitment from the University of Denver, one of the blue bloods of college hockey. In addition, another player, who has worn a Team Canada jersey recently is also a verbal commit. Those jerseys are not just given away. So imagine what could be when shovels hit the ground. Maybe the next Auston Matthews will stay home, and not look to Europe before being drafted into the NHL. Think about the time when ASU losing players for a couple of weeks in December because they are competing in the World Junior Championships becomes routine.
So should ASU not win a game this weekend, it will stink, big time. I will be as down as anyone. Eventually, however, I will remember that this is only year four as a full Division one program. A team that will likely have its second consecutive 20+ win season. And that is a good foundation on the ice, as we wait for the one that goes around the ice.