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Men's basketball 2008-09 outlook

October 15, 2008

A year ago in this very space, it was talked about how the Arizona State men's basketball team came close in a bunch of games in 2006-07, stayed strong during a long losing streak with good, but young, leadership, played a bunch of freshmen, upset a team or two and built for the future with a first-year head coach as it was finding the funds and space to build a cutting-edge practice facility. The student section was teased a bit and rushed the court once and showed a tendency to get loud.

A new theme is needed.

Those close losses in 2006-2007 (a 4-17 record in games decided by 10 points or less) evolved into head-turning wins in 2007-2008 (7-4, including three over NCAA Tournament teams). That young leadership has now matured into a roster that has one of the league's best seniors in Jeff Pendergraph and has eight players who have started at least one game. True, the team again played four freshman and started three on a regular basis last year, but that train has probably left the station as six of the seven freshmen who have started a game in the past two years are on the roster this year fighting for playing time. The upsets of the first year? Maybe they are not upsets when you do it consistently. ASU knocked off four teams in the top 50 of the infamous Ratings Percentage Index with wins over #9 Xavier, #14 Stanford, #28 USC and two wins over #37 Arizona. Those five top-50 RPI wins were more than NCAA Tournament teams Washington State, USC and Oregon (four each). And building for the future could apply to this coming spring, when ASU's Weatherup Center will be completed, a big-time practice facility that will have all the amenities needed to recruit and then develop top talent for years to come. And that student section? The ESPN commentators and SEC writers commented on not only how loud it was against Florida in the NIT, but how it stayed loud throughout. Even when ASU fell behind big early, they just screamed louder.

So what can Sparky fans expect this year? Especially after watching ASU, with zero seniors and three freshmen starters, put together one of the more impressive Sun Devil seasons in arguably the Pac-10's best year?

"We always want to put ourselves in position to make the NCAA Tournament and challenge for the things that everyone in college basketball wants," says third-year head coach Herb Sendek, who is the third-youngest coach in the Pac-10 but carries that loaded resume' which includes 476 games coached, six NCAA Tournaments, 12 NCAA Tournament games and the outrageous total of eight former assistants currently serving as a head coach on the Division I level. "But making the NCAA Tournament has become increasingly more difficult. So we need to just get better daily and with the attitude of our guys I like our chances. We're always trying to put the players we have in the best position to succeed, and I think this year we have more options and more competition for spots."

He likes his chances because he has star power in an All-Pac-10 duo, has a stable of solid experienced players, an energized coaching staff and a system that continues to work as he enters his 16th year mentoring a program with 283 career wins behind him.

Most good teams have great senior leadership. Put a checkmark in the Sun Devil box on this one. Jeff Pendergraph has been through a lot in his three years, including a tumor scare, a coaching change, an eight-win season and then the roller coaster of last year being on the bubble. It has made him stronger. He has stayed on course on the court and in the classroom, as he will graduate this December with a not-so-simple economics degree.

The 6-9 Etiwanda, Calif., native can score (over 1,000 points in his career), is active on the defensive end (56 blocks last year), makes his free throws (over 75 percent in career) and above all is the kind of person you want leading your program.

"Jeff had an outstanding season last year and knows where he has to improve," notes Coach Sendek. "He works hard and is always eager to get better. Jeff is a great player to coach and a great role model for all of our student-athletes."

Part two of ASU's All-Pac-10 duo is James Harden, who had one of the best all-around freshman seasons in league history in a season where several others did the same. Harden has stretched out a bit (listed now at 6-5), and the first McDonald's All-American to sign with ASU out of high school since Chris Sandle in 1984 has the college basketball radar turned towards Tempe. When the NBA Draft dust settled last June, he became the only returning first-team All-Pac-10 player. The most famous Sun Devil southpaw since Phil Mickelson and the youngest player in the Pac-10 last year, he became just the fifth freshman to lead the league in steals (73) and averaged 17.8 points, the first freshman in Pac-10 history to notch both those marks.

"James had a fabulous freshman year. We want to see him advance on a broadband like all of our players, and I think that will happen," notes Coach Sendek. "James is somebody who has great confidence in his ability. He knows his game and he knows what he has to do better than anybody."

Speaking of knowing what to do, ASU has a double-pronged attack at the ever-important point guard slot, and for the first time in Herb Sendek's ASU career it won't be a freshman dribbling up the floor. Junior Derek Glasser has played in all 64 games in his career and started in 40 while sophomore Jamelle McMillan started in 16 games last year and dished out 73 assists. Glasser averaged 32.2 minutes per game in his freshman year when ASU had limited depth, just a shade under two of the top Sun Devil greats in Byron Scott (34.2) and Ike Diogu (33.3), but was able to rest more last year (26.8 minutes per game) as he shot 84.1 percent from the free throw line. The Seattle-born McMillan is the son of Portland Trail Blazer coach Nate McMillan, and Jamelle had a basketball field trip dream this summer when he tagged along with dad and the Olympic team in Bejing. He takes care of the ball and will only improve in year two.

"Both Derek and Jamelle do a very good job of seeing the floor and distributing to the right people at the right time," says Coach Sendek. "They know the value of time and score. Derek played through a tough injury and has regained strength. Jamelle gained valuable experience last year."

Opposite James Harden on the wing last year was another freshman whose numbers were lost in the freshman star power of the Pac-10. The efficient and precise Ty Abbott had arguably one of the five best freshman seasons in ASU history last year when you start crunching numbers. Where did his 34 starts rank in ASU history? How about tops on the list. The 34.8 minutes per game in Pac-10 play...only teammate James Harden had more as a Sun Devil freshman. Those 76 three-pointers that was a Sun Devil freshman record? One of the top marks in Pac-10 freshman history. His 30 points vs. Cal on Feb. 16? Only two other freshmen had 30-point games last year in the league, and they were lottery picks (O.J. Mayo and Jerryd Bayless).

"Ty practices hard on offense without a defense, so that tells you how sharp and tuned in he is. He had an excellent first year and gave us a tremendous boost. He clearly was the difference in a number of our wins."

Depth on the wing comes in the form of the steady Jerren Shipp, who averaged 6.8 points per game in Pac-10 play in his freshman year and set the school mark with 23 points in his first game, the best freshman debut in Sun Devil history. He comes from a basketball family, and his freshman smarts were on display when he was named best cutter and screener by the coaching staff after his freshman season. Last year he started in 16 games and shot over 80 percent from the free throw line and came up big in ASU's lopsided win over No. 17 Xavier with 17 points and seven boards and then helped ASU to its comeback win at Arizona with Pac-10 season-high 11 points. He had nine boards in the win at California on Jan. 17 and posted a career-best 42 minutes in the Arizona overtime win on Jan. 9. He will bring 28 minutes per game in all 64 games in the past two years onto the floor this year.

"Jerren is very coachable and understands the game very well and has become our utility player, sort of a jack-of-all-trades," notes Coach Sendek. "He knows when to release from a screen, when to cut hard, where and when the screen is coming...all those little things that are hard to teach in practice. He is very valuable to this program."

One of the intriguing parts of last year was the development of another freshman, Rihards Kuksiks. The Latvian had a light bulb turn on beginning on Valentine's Day last year, as he helped ASU beat its highest-ranked opponent since it topped No. 4 Stanford on Jan. 31, 1998. In the Stanford game, he had 15 points and that would begin a 12-game stretch to finish the year as he averaged 26.6 minutes, 8.7 points and made 25 three-pointers. Best way to put it...42 points in the first 22 games, 104 points in the final 12.

"Rik became comfortable with the environment and really made us better last year down the stretch. He understands the game very well and has the ability to be the beneficiary of great movement on offense."

Abbott, Kuksiks and Shipp are all solid shooters, and it is not a shock that a Coach Sendek-led team has a few marksmen. His 2003-2004 NC State team led the nation in free throw percentage (.799) and his 2005-2006 squad was ninth in the nation in three-pointers made per game (9.0).

Junior Eric Boateng adjusted to playing again after having to sit all of 2006-2007 after transferring from Duke. He saw double-digit minutes in eight of the final 11 games and his 12 points in 19 minutes on 5-of-6 shooting at Oregon State on March 8 in the regular season finale that helped solidify ASU's .500 Pac-10 record, and he added a career-best 10 boards against Alabama State a week later. His role will grow this year as ASU needs an inside presence besides Jeff Pendergraph.

"In fairness to Eric, he essentially did not play competitively for two years, and that is a long time. As he got his feet under him and gained game experience, he clearly continued to rise and play better and was the difference maker in a couple of our wins down the home stretch. He simply needs to keep grinding and making the effort to get better."

Kraidon Woods signed with Villanova out of high school but elected to go to prep school in 2006-2007 and played in 12 games last year. The 6-9 forward averaged 16.0 points in his senior year and has a tremendous athletic ability and has gained weight and will hope to crack the rotation this year.

Coach Sendek's staff has two newcomers this year who are expected to see playing time. Johnny Coy is a slick and thin 6-8 shooting guard who can fill it up from deep and also hit the curve ball. A seventh-round draft pick of the Phillies last year, expect Coy to be on the receiving end of a James Harden pass a few times and be stationed outside the new three-point arc. But he won't make a living there, as his athletic ability and length gives him the ability to get to the basket. Arizona prep product Taylor Rohde is a 6-8 fundamentally-sound inside player who makes shots and is skilled around the hoop. Both have a chance to see quality minutes but ASU's increased depth won't mean forced playing time.

"As someone makes the adjustment from high school to college, we have to make sure that we allow them to do that at a pace that makes sense," notes Sendek. "To be honest, we have not been able to do that the past two years because of lack of depth, but this year will be a good learning experience for Taylor and Johnny."

Rounding out the Sun Devil roster are newcomers Trent Anderson (a Tucson native who redshirted last year after injuring his knee), Stephen Rogers, Nico Fricchione, Brenton Thomas and Virgil Sanders.

Coach Sendek expects the league to be much of the same, despite a bevy of NBA Draft picks from the Pac-10 last year, including seven in the first round. As many as six Pac-10 teams have received top-25 rankings in the various summer polls, as the league matched its best mark by sending six teams to the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year. In the past seven years, the league has gone 58-38 (.604) in the NCAA Tournament and has sent 18 teams to the Sweet Sixteen.

"My first two seasons in the Pac-10 confirmed my belief that the conference is as good as any in the country and one that will consistently remain at the top because of the great coaches and players," he notes, and this is coming from a former head coach in the ACC for 10 seasons. "We proudly feature outstanding academic institutions, future NBA players and rich basketball traditions. Pac-10 basketball is awesome."

On the sideline, southern California native Dedrique Taylor enters his third season after helping lead Nevada to the WAC Championship in 2004-05 and 2005-06. Scott Pera enters his second year as an assistant coach after serving as the Director of Basketball Operations in 2006-07 and is the recruiting coordinator. The newcomer is Lamont Smith, who played at San Diego and spent the better part of the past decade at St. Mary's helping build that program to NCAA Tournament level. Rob Spence rounds out the staff as Director of Operations.

The 45-year-old Coach Sendek knows all about working on a great staff as he currently has eight former assistant coaches serving as head coaches on the Division I level, including the super successful Jim Christian (Kent State to TCU), Sean Miller (Xavier) and Thad Matta (Ohio State). And his most recent staff change was when 12-year sidekick Mark Phelps accepted the Drake job last spring.

"We continue to be blessed with an outstanding group of coaches. They are character-based, experienced and passionate. They are united and determined to continue to advance Arizona State Basketball.

"It should be an exciting season. Our fan support continues to grow and certainly reflects the excitement around the program. Our student section was outstanding. We are determined to demonstrate continued improvement in every aspect of our program. Our crowds continue to grow and at the end of the season they were as good as anybody in terms of their involvement in the game."