Pac-12 preview: Arizona State University

This is the first in an annual 12-part series previewing the Pac-12 teams.

One of the reasons Arizona State Coach Charli Turner Thorne took a nine-month sabbatical last year was to “really step back from our program and better myself as a coach to really evaluate and look at how we can get back and maintain our elite status for our women’s basketball program.”

She’s back, and this season will indicate how her evaluation went.

The Sun Devils didn’t do too badly last year in Turner Thorne’s absence. They were 20-12 overall, gave eventual Pac-12 Tournament winner Stanford a run for their lives in the event semifinals, and they made it to the first round of the WNIT.

But Turner Thorne clearly wants to return the program to the greatness that it has achieved at times during her 15 years at the helm, which includes eight NCAA tournament appearances – two of which were in the Elite Eight. Their most recent invitations were in 2011 and 2009.

Turner Thorne has her work cut out for her.

Leading scorers and rebounders Kimberly Brandon and Kali Bennett have graduated, and Alex Earl, Olivia Major and Haley Parsons are also gone. Key returners are senior guards Deja Mann and Micaela Pickens, senior forward/center Janae Fulcher and redshirt freshman Eliza Normen. Last year, Mann, Pickers and Fulcher averaged well under 10 points per game.

The newcomers are relative unknowns. Nisha Barrett is a junior transfer from Barstow Community College in Barstow, Calif.; freshman Elisha Davis graduated form Berkeley High School; Arnecia Hawkins is a freshman from Red Mountain High School in Mesa, Ariz.; freshman Isidora Purkovic is from Calgary, Alberta; and Haley Videckis is a freshman from Bartlett, Ill.

Even with a great supporting cast that includes new associate head coach Amanda Levens, associate coach Meg Sanders and assistant coach Jackie Moore, Turner Thorne has best hit the ground running. Because the Sun Devils’ pre-season schedule is not for the weak.

In their season opener Nov. 11, they face Texas Tech. At the South Point Thanksgiving Shootout in Las Vegas, ASU will take on North Carolina State and Floria. They will also face Providence, Boston College, and Dayton.

Fans have only to look at Oregon State the last two years to see that good coaches can accomplish a lot with players willing to work hard. But make no mistake: Turner Thorne will have to rebuild her program to bring it back to an elite level. And it won’t happen overnight.