Jeff Pendergraph didn’t understand it at first. Even as the losses piled up during a program-record 15-game losing streak, Arizona State fans continued to show up at Wells Fargo Arena.
They cheered the whole time and there wasn’t a hint of sarcasm when they spilled onto the court following the streak-busting win over Southern California.
Pendergraph finally figured it all out after talking with students who wanted to get on the bandwagon before it filled up.
“They know it’s going to happen soon, so they want to be the first people there,” Pendergraph said.
The reviews of Herb Sendek’s first season as ASU’s coach were almost unanimously positive. Inheriting a roster full of players that were not considered talented enough for the Pac-10 coming out of high school, Sendek made due.
He started three freshmen, ditched his preferred Princeton offense, employed a zone defense for the first time in his career and guided the team to vast improvement over the course of the season.
In their first trip through the Pac-10 round robin, the Sun Devils went 0-9 and were outscored by 11.3 points per game. In the second half of the season, ASU went 2-7 and was outscored in its losses by 4.7 points per game.
Along the way, the team saw more and more gold in its building. Average attendance climbed by just 200 to 6,931 per game this season, but unlike in past years fans came ready to support the team.
Even Arizona coach Lute Olson praised Sendek for creating an atmosphere in the arena.
“When you’re not winning, to achieve an increase in attendance, an increase in noise, an increase in intensity, isn’t easy to do,” Sendek said. “We want to take what’s happened this year and use it as a springboard toward even better environments moving forward.”
Part of springing forward will involve upgrading the roster.
ASU’s incoming freshman class is ranked among the best 15 in the country and includes top-100 prospects James Harden, a shooting guard from Los Angeles, and point guard Jamelle McMillan of Seattle.
The team will also add 6-foot-10 Duke transfer Eric Boateng to the active roster.
When Harden and Boateng debut in November’s Maui Invitational, it’ll be the first time ASU has ever had two McDonald’s All-Americans on the floor together.
The class of 2007 may not be limited to four players.
ASU has regained the scholarship lost as a result of the Academic Progress Rates report and could use it to sign a fifth recruit when the late signing period begins April 11.
Sendek stressed that ASU would not use the scholarship simply to add a body.
“We’re going to treat our scholarships like the prize possessions that they are,” he said. “We’re not going for quick fixes.”
One possible addition could be Ty Abbott, a 6--4 shooting guard who averaged 17 points per game for Phoenix Desert Vista this season.
He requested a release from his letter of intent to New Mexico after the dismissal of coach Ritchie McKay and expects to be back on the market March 16. (Mesa Dobson coach Rick McConnell said his son, Mickey, would wait to see who New Mexico hires before deciding whether or not to stick with the Lobos.) “I know he would eagerly entertain that idea,” Abbott’s mother Traci Hawkins said of the prospect of her son playing at ASU.
Whether the incoming class contains four freshmen or five, ASU’s rotation next season should be dramatically altered despite the loss of just two seniors.
Harden, McMillan and Boateng could immediately step into the starting lineup. Current freshmen Derek Glasser, Christian Polk and Jerren Shipp will provide depth and compete to retain their starting guard spots.
The team will belong to Pendergraph, who asserted himself as a vocal and emotional leader this season and was the only Sun Devil to earn all-conference honors.
“It’ll be known that I’m the floor general,” Pendergraph said. “Coach has it off the court. I have it on the court. I’ll make sure it’s understood that’s how it’ll work.”
Pendergraph’s development as a leader, the improvement of three freshman starters and the discovery of a fan base that actually cares about ASU basketball could be the legacy of what appears on the surface to have been a lost season.
“I think two or three years down the road we’re going to look at this Arizona State team and say the foundation was laid this year,” USC coach Tim Floyd said. “They’re going to be a team that’s going to be highly competitive in this league for a long time.”
Arizona State will welcome five fresh faces to the floor when the 2007-08 season tips off in November in Maui.
C Eric Boateng, Duke: 6-foot-10 transfer anchored ASU’s scout team (and helped lead its bench in cheers) while redshirting
SG James Harden, Lakewood (Calif.) Artesia: McDonald’s All-American averaging 18 points, eight rebounds and four assists for section champs
SF Rihard Kuksiks, Melbourne (Fla.) Florida Air Academy: Long-range specialist averaged 30 points with high 3-point percentage in leading team to 3A state title
PG Jamelle McMillan, Seattle O’Dea: Son of NBA coach Nate McMillan averaging 14 points and eights assist for district runner-up
SF Kraidon Woods, Pottstown (Pa.) The Hill School: Former Villanova-signee averaged double-double to lead prep school to runner-up finish at state