January 31, 2008

ASU looks to get back in win column at UCLA

Due to the arrival of a Top-20 recruiting class headlined by James Harden, there was a pretty good idea that Arizona State would be more competitive than in Herb Sendek's first season in Tempe, when his squad went 8-22 overall and 2-16 in the Pac-10. Expectations were up, despite a predicted 9th place finish in the media poll. But nobody could have anticipated where the Sun Devils would be 16 games into their season.

In the process of starting the year 14-2 and 4-0 in the Pac-10, a perspective shift undoubtedly occurred with many Sun Devil fans, and as a result, there is now some disappointment over a three game losing streak that has left the squad 14-5 and 4-3 in league play.

Some, including this writer, would say that is unfair.

In the 4-0 start to the season, ASU played three games at home and won two overtime games, including the double overtime at Cal, the only road win of the season.

Though ASU was up by double digit margins against Stanford and Washington State, and up nine points versus Washington, it couldn't sustain those leads and lost all three games. Just as easily though, ASU could have won one of those games and lost one of the overtime games; or won two of the last three and lost both overtime games.

There was some bad luck, sure. Harden suffering the groin strain and not playing at full strength versus Washington and Washington State no doubt hurt ASU. But remember, Arizona's best player, Jerryd Bayless, didn't play when the Wildcats came to down.

Point is, so far at least, it's all just about come out even in the wash. And fans shouldn't be too disappointed with the three game losing streak, or even if that streak carries on to five if the Sun Devils get swept on the road against UCLA and USC.

This program is so far beyond where it was just a year ago. When you look at it in the broad terms, which is how these things should be viewed, there is little to be disappointed about.

Let's keep in mind, the Sun Devils are starting three freshman guards in the Pac-10, which is the toughest league in the nation. They have been in every single game they've played in the league through the majority of the contest.

That alone is a tremendous accomplishment.

To have a winning record and have already doubled last season's win total seven games into the schedule is remarkable. To even sniff the Top-25, much less break into it for a couple of weeks is beyond what anyone reasonably expected at the beginning of the season.

People have long said that basketball will never be a big deal in Tempe, but that's probably not the vibe anyone has felt at Wells Fargo Arena in recent weeks. Against Washington State, there were over 10,000 fans in attendance, and it actually looked like the arena was at least 80 percent full.

What would happen if ASU actually strung a couple of successful, 20-win type seasons together under Sendek? I think it's pretty clear you'd see sellouts, or near sellouts for most Pac-10 games.

Let's keep in mind. This is a very young team. Jeff Pendergraph is the lone junior who is playing substantial minutes. The Sun Devils have had freshmen earn 72 of 155 starts since Sendek arrived. ASU's last opponent, Washington State, has had four freshmen starts in that same period.

Sendek doesn't like to blame youth for anything, but these players are going through their first Pac-10 schedule, and only now are they getting the true sense of just what a grind it really is.

One of the main reasons they've lost three straight is that the 3-point shooting that has been so good and timely in earlier games, has vanished. Ty Abbott is shooting .364 for the season from long range, but just .294 in league games, and even worse in the last three losses; Jerren Shipp, .371 for the season and .158 in Pac-10 play; Jamelle McMillan, .348 on the season, .273 in league play; Derek Glasser, .265 on the season and .214 in league play; Christian Polk, .294 on the season and .167 in league play.

Opposing teams have done a very good job double and tripling teaming Pendergraph in the post, in an effort to reduce the Sun Devils to a one-man offense of Harden. If other players are not knocking down shots, that's often going to be a successful strategy.

Tonight's game against No. 5 UCLA (18-2; 6-1) is another chance to get back on track. Some might say it will be the team's toughest game to date, but when asked about that earlier this week, Pendergraph was incredulous.

"What do you mean they get tougher? Things are always tough," he responded to a reporter's question. "Let me known when it's been easy. Then we can say its been tough. Every week it is just a different type of hard, every game is difficult it is just a different type of difficult every time and very game is a different type of game."

Tonight's "type of hard" features UCLA freshman center Kevin Love, arguably the most impressive first-year performer in the nation. Love, a bid-bodied, highly skilled 6-foot-10, 260 pounder, is averaging 17.3 points and 11.3 rebounds, while shooting .590 from the field and .379 from the 3-point line. He's also one of the best passing post players in the college game in recent year, perhaps ever.

When he is out there on the court he doesn't really look like a freshman, he fits in with the veterans on the offense and he does a lot of big time things for them," Pendergraph said. "He is not out there just setting screens like the typical UCLA big man. He is a focal point of their offense."

The Bruins have an excellent transition game with Love's outlet passes and the backcourt excellent of ultra-quick Darren Collison and Russell Westbrook, who combine to average over 25 points and five assists per game. Throw in the intelligent play and 3-point shooting of Josh Shipp -- brother of Jerren -- a player who is like a veteran version of ASU's Abbott, and the frontcourt help afforded to Love by Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Alfred Aboya and Lorenzo Mata-Real and you have about as tough a team and you'll ever face in the Pac-10.

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