After posting their third consecutive 20 plus win season last year, the Sun Devil Men's basketball team enters this campaign predicted by most experts to finish in the top four of the Pac-10 conference. Sendek though understands the task at hand of incorporating a plethora of new talent into a team still learning to play together.
"When you start a new season you deal with a unique set of circumstances and variables and you do the best you can at that given time. And that's what we're doing right now. We're trying to integrate seven new players into our system," Sendek commented. "Our older guys have done a great job with leadership. It's the best leadership we've had. I've been really pleased with our seniors and Trent (Lockett) when it comes to leadership. So I'm really encouraged by that. But our new guys have been practicing college basketball for three weeks, so what we did the last three years has absolutely, positively no bearing on them.
"Potentially we can be a very good defensive team. The thing right now is our sport is a mental game. Despite the physical attributes we can point out, our guys are still learning how to play. We're at the beginning stages of that. The mental aspect on any one possession, the attention to detail required, is enormous. So that's where we're focused right now; learning to play with each other."
The Sun Devils spent the entire summer and preseason practices getting to know each other, Coach Sendek's offensive and defensive philosophies, and how to make their styles and personalities mesh well together on the court.
"It's a process that most don't like going through but all have to go through. That's another part of the mental deal; coming in and you're not the number one guy anymore." McMillan observed. "The ball is not going to be in your hands half as much. Being able to accept that and work with it is a challenge."
"Arizona State basketball, we play together. Once guys are able to get over that and get outside themselves a little bit and have an open mind, then they're able to be successful individually and help their team collectively."
What this year's team lacks in experience though it makes up for with athleticism and a commitment to teamwork. "I think we have more depth," said Sendek. "We have a lot of guys that can play different positions and are pretty versatile. So I think the thing that stands out to me is our increased depth. Top to bottom we're probably a longer team than we've been in the past. We probably have more athletes than we've had in the past.
"They're working. They're trying. The effort they bring everyday - the concentration, the focus - it's nice to see a bunch of guys who want to help and who have been helping," McMillan commented.
The senior point guard, who will be asked to lead this young Sun Devil team on the court, has also noticed the remarkable amount of talent on the roster this season. "There's a lot of potential," said Jamelle. "Each individual has their own thing that they do. In watching them, they have a lot of key parts that can help us this year.
"I'm excited about what each of them can bring. They each bring something a little different and we're looking forward to bringing it all together and hopefully be successful."
Perhaps the crown jewel of this year's freshman class is Keala King, who many expect to contribute significantly this season.
"Keala is a guy that when he puts his mind to it he can do it. He's a lethal weapon both on the offensive end as well as the defensive end," said McMillan. "He gets to the basket very, very well. Gets in there and has good body control offensively. Defensively, he has very long arms. He's a strong guard who can keep guys in front and he's very athletic. He's a guy that should definitely help us this year."
Teaming up with King at that wing position is junior college transfer Carrick Felix who originally signed with Duke making him the first ever JC prospect to be signed by Blue Devils' head coach Mike Krzyzewski.
"Carrick is a tremendous athlete. He has the ‘wow factor' athletically," Sendek gushed. "I love his personality. He is just a great teammate. He genuinely cares about the guy to his right and left. He, in his own way, pulls guys aside and gets in their ear; encourages them. Picks them up. So, he also has some great leadership skills."
This year's Sun Devil team figures to use that new infusion of athleticism to its benefit by implementing a faster pace of play than fans are accustomed to in the desert. "This team, I think in a way, gets after it a little bit more. Offensively and defensively we can play a little bit quicker pace," McMillan stated. "We've been getting the ball up the floor, up and out, even on makes and misses; we're getting the ball up the floor.
"It's something that's emphasized. These guys like running the floor. Trent's a great, athletic wing. Carrick is another guy who, I mean, is one of the best athlete's I've played with. Kyle Cain can run the floor. Ruslan (Pateev) is running the floor a lot better."
Pateev, a sophomore, will be asked to man the paint this season while true freshman Jordan Bachynski gets adjusted to the college game after spending two years serving his Mormon mission. Despite serving as Eric Boateng's primary backup last season, Jamelle is confident Pateev will surprise Sun Devil fans this season.
"Ruslan has gotten some footwork from somewhere," McMillan said with a smile. "I mean, he's down there dancing in the post. It's good to see. I think he feels comfortable. His first year he was behind Boateng and Boateng beat him up a little bit. He didn't like it too much. But now he's coming in and understands that he's a guy that we definitely need.
"He has developed both a right and a left hand down low. As far as finishing around the hoop, he's got a really nice touch. And he's shooting the ball out to the three point line now. He's made great improvement over the summer."
Aiding Pateev on the blocks will be another true freshman, Kyle Cain, whom Sendek says he can envision playing the center position when the team wants to go small and use its athleticism. "He is a good rebounder. He's a tough, young guy. He's not afraid to mix it up. He'll be one of our better rebounders moving forward," Sendek said.
By having played two closed scrimmages against D-I competition (Saint Mary's and Texas Tech) rather than two exhibition games against lower level teams, McMillan feels this team has gained some valuable experience while learning where its weaknesses continue to be.
"Box out and rebounding was the first one," McMillan pointed out. "That's been the trend since I've been here and that's going to be the trend every year after I leave. Rebounding was huge, especially in the St. Mary's one. We did a much better job versus Texas Tech this past weekend.
"I think the anxiety of playing against somebody else other than ourselves - guys start to get sped up a little bit. Guys wanted to go off on their own deal and got away from what we do. Texas Tech was a lot better. We moved the ball a lot better. Guys shot the ball a lot better. But we left too many points at the free throw line. Rebounding and free throws are points we can't afford to lose. If we're able to clean up those two areas, I think these guys will be fit for a good season."