Yet, the maroon and gold are turning a new leaf this season in more than one way. Athleticism, depth and inexperience seem to define this year's Sun Devils and the large 2010 recruiting class in naturally responsible for those traits.
The newcomers have brought the team much needed length, and some players that would be labeled as "freaks" when it came to their agility and speed. It's a team that simply looks different physically just by eyeballing them on the court without them even holding a basketball in their hands.
How will this newfound athleticism translate to offense and defensive abilities remains to be seen. However, it wouldn't be a stretch to say that the much (yet unjustified overblown) maligned ASU's slow offensive tempo will be a thing of a past. The transition game will kick up a notch and the aforementioned length should create mismatch problems. Furthermore, rebounding is currently an area of concern but the makeup of this team should help in that area as well.
ASU's five returning players make it an easy choice, at least for the time being, to determine the starting lineup. How much of a drop-off will the team experience when the first three or in some cases four bench players enter the contest is largely unknown. Pure basketball abilities, and again athleticism, won't be a question as much as grasping concepts and schemes on both ends of the floor.
The athleticism of the squad can only help the team to continue the motion offense that it has implemented middle of last season and was system that not only saved the squad's Pac-10 campaign but propelled the maroon and gold to contend for the league title. That same attribute can only aid a zone defense which asks the players to cover ground quickly and continually adjust their position on the floor.
There certainly isn't a lot of middle ground between the experience of the starters and the greenness of the reserve players. You obviously hope that the experienced players can help gravitate the rookies towards them more and more in terms of level of play during the early portions of the season.
By all reports the leadership of this team has been excellent and the newcomers have been eager to learn and have created a chemistry that is much needed for a team's success. You rather be playing your better basketball later than early in the season and with the makeup of his squad this just might happen.
On the other hand, you obviously don't want to sacrifice the non-conference portion of schedule as the team experiences its growing pains. Gradual improvement is paramount with such a young team. The extreme cohesiveness of this group can only help a collection of players who genuinely care about each other and the collective good of the team.
The unquestionable leaders on this squad are Ty Abbott and Jamelle McMillan and this tandem has lead more by example than vocally but the effectiveness and consistency of their actions has been evident in the pre-season. Their intensity in the weight room and on the practice floor has been infectious to say the least.
The inexperience of the team can lead to the veterans to feeling even more pressure and starting to do a more than is required of them. Yet, the structure of the team is that if each of the players individually buys into what they are required to do and do so on a consistent basis the rest will take care of itself. A player swerving out of their lane will only hit more bumps in the road. Thus, all players will have to discover their niche and hone that skill to the hilt.
The Sun Devils had to say goodbye to three familiar faces in the offseason as Derek Glasser, Eric Boateng and Jerren Shipp graduated. Glasser was one of the most productive floor generals in ASU's history, while Shipp and Boateng were steady blue-collar reserves (for the most part).
This year's roster offers an interesting dynamic because on the one hand, the Devils are a pretty experienced squad as they return three starters and the top two scorers and on the other hand, most of the players on the squad have no Division I experience at all.
Let's go ahead and meet this year's 2010-11 ASU team:
Ty Abbott – After a sensational freshman year followed by a mediocre sophomore campaign, Abbott's game really came together nicely in his junior season. In one of the more impressive big game performances from a Sun Devil in any sport in the last handful of years Abbott torched archrival Arizona in Tucson for one easy bucket after another to avenge an earlier loss to the Wildcats.
Abbott spent the entire summer transforming his body. He looks sleeker but hasn't lost any of his strength. This could potentially allow him to diversify his game that much more and be the slasher he was known to be locally at Phoenix Desert Vista High School. But make no mistake about it – his ability to knock down the three-point shot with consistency is what makes him the focal point of any scouting report devised by an ASU opponent.
His knowledge and execution of the ASU's defense is second to none and serves as one the biggest aspects of his leadership by example. But don't be surprised if he will be asked on one than more occasion to carry this team on his back on the offensive end of the floor.
Jamelle McMillan – Quite possibly the most important player in the Pac-10 heading into this season. In this system, a point guard has to control the game and be smart with the ball and while the same can be said for any point guard in any system, the impact Glasser had on games couldn't be ignored. Whether it's changing the tempo or making a shot when the defense is lagging, McMillan needs to be a force on the offensive end.
No one will outwork or out hustle the senior and again his leadership on and off the court is beyond invaluable. He may not be the assist machine that Glasser was but his contributions can be just as effective in the grand scheme of things. It would be hard to imagine the Sun Devils having a successful season with a struggling McMillan.
Rihards Kuksiks – There was a good chance that after a trip home to Latvia in the summer that the Kuksiks would never come back. With the allure of a professional contract and with that, the financial security he could provide his family – Kuksiks had a tough decision to make. Ultimately, he decided that coming back to earn his degree and make another run at the NCAA Tournament were two very worthwhile reasons. Make no mistake about it - his return for his senior year will pay hefty dividends.
The team's leading scorer (12.1 ppg) from a year ago, Kuksiks is first and foremost a deadly three-point shooter but offseason reports implied that his game has developed inside the perimeter and that is nothing but good news for the Devils. On a team short on experience, you cannot put a price tag on the forward's overall knowledge of the game, let alone his familiarity with the ASU's schemes.
Kuksiks has trimmed down a bit so his newfound quickness can keep defenses honest by putting the ball on the floor and attacking the basket a little bit more. If he can do that he will give teams bigger headaches than he has already given.
Trent Lockett – Last season was what one should expect out of a true freshman. Lockett was the most athletic player on the team but that didn't always translate to successful play. Many times, he was unstoppable – too fast for bigger defenders and too strong for smaller defenders. Conversely, his jump shot was inconsistent and at times it seemed like he'd go several possessions at a time without touching the ball. This season, his jumper has improved markedly, he has gotten stronger and his understanding of the game is light years from when it was this time last year.
While the seniors get a lot of attention and some of the newcomers are generating an early buzz – we could see Lockett really breaking out this season.
Ruslan Pateev – It's a rare thing to be 7-feet tall at ASU and it's unheard of to be that tall and still not be the tallest on the team. Pateev had an inconsistent first season in Tempe but with the departure of Boateng his minutes are going to go up considerably in his second season. His improvement from his freshman to sophomore year has been solid, but one has to realize is that like with every big man the progression tends to be normally slower than other positions on the floor.
Nevertheless, Pateev has bulked up, improved his understanding of ASU's schemes and overall has been one of the hardest working players on this team. The center makes great use of his hands whether it's catching or passing and has very good court vision. Pateev has a better outside game than most guys his size but his physical presence in the paint needs to be felt more than his three-pointers.
Keala King – he is the crown jewel of this class but the transition to the college has been rough at times for the former Mater Dei standout. When you are "the man" and you're not able to dominate in your new environment as everyone expects you to, the errors you commit can be blown out of proportion (in the player's mind) and make the proverbial hole to climb out that much deeper. Even ASU's recent All-American James Harden went through that phase, albeit for a fairly short time.
King is truly ambidextrous, has a myriad of skills and can influence the game by scoring or distributing. Nonetheless, those talents are often prevented from being displayed because of his physical limitations. When King is able to figure out the ASU schemes from a mental standpoint, he will unquestionably shine. His rebounding is one of his strongest suits and he is one the best well-rounded players on this squad and could be called upon to run the point when he relieves McMillan. At this point, it may take longer than expected for him to realize his potential but once that happens this team will definitely be better for it.
Chanse Creekmur – when the 2010 recruiting class was announced he looked like former ASU player Johnny Coy 2.0 – a Midwestern kid that could shoot the lights out and put up gaudy statistics in high school against lesser competition. The comparisons came to a screeching halt in the pre-season. The Iowa guard is perhaps the biggest surprise of this newcomers group and has been continually turning heads early in the pre-season.
As someone who also played quarterback in high school, Creekmur has been able to effectively apply his learning of a playbook to his play and is considered a fast learner. Physically and style wise he is a spitting image of Kuksiks, especially with his deft shooting from three-point range. However, he has shown better athleticism and ball handling than the senior and the football background helps him from a toughness standpoint.
Jordan Bachynski – The ultimate Wild Card among the first-year players. The tallest player in Sun Devil history (7'2) hails from Canada and has spent his last two years completing his Mormon mission. Is he good? Not totally sure. Bachynski sent out his tapes to a number of schools and ASU won his services over powers such as UConn so that gives reason for excitement. Having said that, the Sun Devil nation will have to curb its collective enthusiasm concerning the center.
He still has good mechanics, and his agility for a player his size is exceptional. On the other hand, among his peers the transition to the college game has probably been the roughest on him. As he tries to rediscover the fundamentals of the game he needs to also acclimate himself to ASU's schemes .But as they say, you can't coach height.
Bachynski will surely be called upon to fortify the front court and it goes without saying that he should be a defensive presence for the Sun Devils not only altering shots but also getting out on the corners and covering a wide area which is vital in playing a zone defense.
Carrick Felix – An Arizona native, Felix spent his freshman season in Southern Idaho Junior College attracting a plethora of offers. The former Goodyear Millennium high school star signed a letter of intent with Duke in April making him the first junior college player the Blue Devils' skipper Mike Krzyzewski ever signed. He did later request to be released from the team and needless to say that the Sun Devils were extremely fortunate to land a player that could eventually be the best player of this seven-man recruiting class.
Felix is the epitome of a wing payer blessed with supreme athleticism, instincts and versatility. Judging by his overall performance in the pre-season he has come as advertised. His god-given talents and his work ethic make him a solid contributor on both ends of the floor. His jumper still lacks true consistency but his ability to get to the rim is an aspect that ASU lacked a season ago and he is one of the better rebounders on the team. Overall, should be an immediate impact player.
Kyle Cain – a late signee, and a one-time Rhode Island commit Cain is a wiry big man that will only improve as his body fills out. You can in essence call him a poor man's Dennis Rodman because his rebounding, tenacity and dirty work in the paint are his calling card and are the aspects where he will make the biggest contribution.
It will be interesting to see how he will be utilized in the rotation. Two similar players that came through this program before him – Kraidon Woods and George Odufuwa – didn't see much run and ultimately transferred. Cain seems a little further along in his development than those other two players and there is a more opportunity for him to play with little frontcourt depth.
Brandon Dunson – Much like Felix is the poster child for the dramatic upgrade in athleticism. That being said he has been going through the normal learning curve most first-year players have experienced and hasn't locked in the backup point guard spot that he was expected to.
His skill set (see: YouTube) and intellectual character (see: blog), should hopefully speed up that transition for a spot in the rotation that need to be defined sooner rather than later. His 42-inch vertical jump allows him to sky for rebounds and finish at the rim and he is an above average defender.
Corey Hawkins – when you look around basketball whether it be the professional ranks or the college level, you see a lot of sons and daughters of former greats playing and coaching at a high level. That's why it's easy to get excited about Hawkins, the son of former NBA standout Hersey Hawkins.
The local Goodyear Estrella Foothills High School star standout broke the state's all-time high school scoring record last season and has already showed flashes of that pure shooting in the weeks leading up to ASU's season opener.
Playing at the 3A level in high school and being absent from the AAU circuit have always raised flags about how he would fair against elite competition, and this high basketball IQ player has been using that criticism as a motivator. With the backup point guard position being somewhat in a state of flux, Hawkins has been dabbling with playing that role at times. Like any scorer his defense will be a question mark until proven otherwise.
It's year five of the Sendek era and an NCAA Tournament appearance should be expected. The Sun Devils have played in three consecutive postseasons but only one of those was the big dance. With a strong returning core and a bevy of talented rookies – this team has the depth to go along with great coaching to make this a successful campaign. The Pac-10 has been dogged in the media in the last couple years. But a top-3 conference finish and 22 wins, to go along with a challenging non-conference schedule, will have the Sun Devils dancing in March.