The warm-ups are off, and a second season begins. This being Pac-10 time, the next two months will be the largest determinant of whether the Arizona State men’s basketball team gets swept into March Madness for the first time since 2002-2003.
Or whether another season becomes blurred with so many in recent years. Gone and mostly forgotten.
Since October, pundits and outsiders have predicted a free pass to the Big Dance for this No. 17 team in the country, a theory boosted by last season’s controversial “leave behind” in March and further fueled by having all five starters back — including a future NBA lottery pick in sophomore James Harden and another potential pro in Jeff Pendergraph — as well as most of its bench.
“We’ve been waiting,” said Harden, who’s a strong candidate for Pac-10 player of the year. “We’re excited to do some things in the Pac-10. Last year, we were all young, so that was an excuse, and we don’t make excuses, but people said we were young.
“This year, we’re a lot more focused. We know how to handle pressure situations on the road. So we’ve been there as the same team. We have to go in there and play our game and come out with the same intensity.”
To a man, the Sun Devils view an NCAA tournament run as this season’s ultimate prize — and with a couple exceptions, their play since losing to Baylor has been of a team possessed to show that it’s headed there.
Outwardly, however, their goals aren’t so black and white. They’re only beginning the second of three “seasons” they use to categorize each season, and though their goal was a 12-0 nonconference schedule, 11-1 will suffice.
Ever the artist of generalities, coach Herb Sendek doesn’t use specific reference points as reasons for change, but his players do.
Some said the comeback against IUPUI lit a fire. Some said the thriller against BYU has created a ripple effect of confidence and self-belief.
Others saw the loss to Baylor — in which the Sun Devils were dissected on the defensive end — as a reality check for what lies ahead, beginning today at Stanford.
“I think the loss woke us up a little bit,” ASU point guard Derek Glasser said. “We were a little cocky going into that (76 Classic in Anaheim) tournament. If it didn’t happen then, it probably would have happened before conference. I think it woke us up. I think we’re playing our best basketball now, coming into conference.”
Whatever specific Pac-10 benchmarks the team has are being kept inside the locker room. The Devils don’t want to talk about last season’s tournament omission, or the couple of Pac-10 games that may have gotten away from them.
“The tournament is definitely one of our goals,” Glasser said.
Pendergraph will be gone at season’s end, and nobody knows (James included) if Harden will follow.
So the next eight to 10 weeks could be the best ASU has offered its fans this decade.
The team is healthy and boasts an improved Harden, an increasingly active supporting cast in Ty Abbott, Rihards Kuksiks and Jamelle McMillan, and a leader in Pendergraph. This is the time to take it all in.
“What we did in nonconference is all fine and dandy, but if we don’t take care of business in the Pac-10, it’s not going to matter,” Pendergraph said.
“As soon as we get halfway through Pac-10 and we’re not doing what we’re supposed to, we’ll be right back where we’ve been ever since I’ve been here. No tournament. No nothing.
“Typical ASU. Letdown, blah, blah, blah. All that stuff. It feels good (to be winning entering Pac-10 play), but with the whole confidence thing, it’s not about that. It’s about us taking care of business and knowing what we can do, and doing it.”
PAC-10 MEN'S BASKETBALL PREVIEW
Coach: Russ Pennell
Last Year: 19-15, 8-10 (7th in Pac-10)
This Year: 9-3
Outlook: Following a more-than-tumultuous summer and fall in which Lute Olson ultimately retired and his newest assistant, Pennell, a former ASU assistant and radio analyst, took over, all is not lost in Tucson. The 'Cats still have arguably the most talented trio in the league with Chase Budinger, Nic Wise and Jordan Hill, and they’ve played like it. Their meltdown against Alabama-Birmingham feels like a distant memory, and though losses to Texas A&M and UNLV, wins against Gonzaga, Kansas and San Diego State are solid. They still have deficiencies which need to be proven otherwise in conference play, but the school’s 25 conseuctive NCAA Tournament appearances has a chance to continue.
Coach: Herb Sendek
Last Year: 21-13, 9-9 (tie 5th)
This Year: 11-1 (No. 17/14)
Outlook: Barring injuries to a few pretty important guys, anything short of making the NCAA Tournament will be viewed as a major disappointment. The Sun Devils fared better in this year’s nonconference schedule than last year, but it still might ultimately prove to be less-than-notable, which means a top-four Pac-10 finish will be needed to reach March Madness. Each member of the supporting cast around James Harden and Jeff Pendergraph has improved, which makes this their year, because Pendergraph is a senior and Harden is likely headed to the NBA if he keeps up his torrid play (23.8 ppg, 6 rpg, 4.4 apg, 1.8 spg).
Coach: Mike Montgomery
Last Year: 17-16, 6-12 (9th)
This Year: 11-2
Outlook: Though popular, Ben Braun was fired following another underachieving season and longtime Stanford coach Mike Montgomery took his place. That should make for a fun dynamic when the two teams meet at Stanford on Jan. 17, but it’s also worked wonders for the Bears thus far. Despite losing Pac-10 leading scorer and a top-3 rebounder in Ryan Anderson, the Bears won at UNLV and Utah, beat Nevada and barely lost to Florida State. Montgomery is a four-time coach of the year who’s been to 12 NCAA Tournaments in 18 seasons at Stanford, so he knows what he’s doing.
Coach: Ernie Kent
Last Year: 18-14, 9-9 (tie 5th)
This Year: 6-6
Outlook: It wasn’t just Arizona’s NCAA berth last year which drew the ire of Sun Devil fans who felt snubbed. Oregon received a bid as well despite playing no better than ASU. Both UA and OU were one-and-done and now the Ducks are retooling after three of the top four scorers graduated. It’s been a struggle thus far, though they’ve lost to North Carolina, Texas, Utah and St. Mary’s. The Ducks are a bit of a mystery going forward, which is usually been the case the past few years.
Coach: Craig Robinson
Last Year: 6-25, 0-18 (10th)
This Year: 5-5
Outlook: A long, arduous climb begins. Again. Better known as Barack Obama’s brother-in-law, Robinson was hired to replace the fired Jay John (now a Stanford assistant). Losses to Howard and Yale in November were painful, but the Beavers have come around a bit to beat Fresno State and Nebraska. The Beavers return four starters from last year and sophomore guard Calvin Haynes has been excellent the past four games after not playing the first six. OSU might finish last again in the league, but odds are they’ll win a couple Pac-10 games this time.
Coach: Johnny Dawkins
Last Year: 28-8, 13-5 (2nd)
This Year: 10-0
Outlook: Dawkins, a longtime Duke assistant, former Blue Devils guard and NBA standout was hired to replace Trent Johnson, who bolted for LSU following last year’s Sweet Sixteen berth. With the Lopez twins gone, Stanford figured to slide, but the Cardinal returned their other three starters, so they have a good backcourt with Mitch Johnson, Anthony Goods and Lawrence Hill. The jury is still out given a weak nonconference schedule, but a Tournament appearance isn’t laughable, and that would be remarkable given all they’d lost since April.
Coach: Ben Howland
Last Year: 35-4, 16-2 (1st)
This Year: 10-2 (No. 12/9)
Outlook: The Bruins remain the Pac-10’s gold standard. Though still the highest ranked school in the conference (No. 12), it hasn’t been quite the same start with losses to Michigan and at Texas. Losing Kevin Love, Michael Westbrook and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute to the NBA will alter a team’s future, and key senior wing Josh Shipp hasn’t yet been healthy. Still, they have the best point guard in the Pac-10 in Darren Collison, an excellent freshman in Jrue Holliday and Howland coaching defense. A fourth consecutive Final Four is a tall task, but the conference championship will go through Pauley Pavilion.
Coach: Tim Floyd
Last Year: 21-12, 11-7 (tie 3rd)
This Year: 9-3
Outlook: USC figures to be a contender with UCLA and Arizona State atop the Pac-10, and the Trojans could win the league if they continue to defend, hit a few more outside shots and cut down turnovers (nearly 17 per game) in the coming months. Losses to Missouri, at Seton Hall and at Oklahoma (by 1 point) are nothing to be ashamed of. The Trojans have a trio comporable to Arizona’s with guards Daniel Hackett and Dwight Lewis, and center Taj Gibson. Freshman DeMar DeRozan could be as good as O.J. Mayo if he stays in school beyond this year. Regardless, USC should be in the Big Dance for a third consecutive year under Floyd.
Coach: Lorenzo Romar
Last Year: 16-17, 7-11 (8th)
This Year: 8-3
Outlook: Big things are expected in Seattle, because the Huskies return three starters a few other key contributors. Jon Brockman is the catalyst, and the 6-foot-8, 250-pounder averages a double-double (16.4 ppg, 10.4 rpg), he’s been nicked up recently. After a season-opening loss at Portland, the Huskies lost higher-profile games to Kansas and Florida. The jury is still out, but it’s a big year for UW, which has struggled the past two seasons after being an NCAA Tournament team for three consecutive seasons earlier this decade.
Coach: Tony Bennett
Last Year: 26-9, 11-7 (tie 3rd)
This Year: 8-4
Outlook: UCLA, ASU and USC get a lot of pub, but nobody should sleep on the Cougars. Following consecutive 26-win seasons and trip to the Sweet Sixteen last year, Tony Bennett’s team returns to key components in forward Aron Baynse and point guard Taylor Rochestie. They’ve dropped their four premium non-league tests (Pittsburgh, Baylor, Gonzaga and LSU), but the style of play means they’ll be in almost every Pac-10 game. And anyone who says they enjoy trying to win games in Pullman is dillusional.