Team identity starting to be revealed

With seven newcomers on the squad, pundits and fans alike were probably having a hard time to handicap this year's ASU basketball team. They were not alone in trying to solve that dilemma.

"When I was looking in the rearview mirror where we have been," said Arizona State head coach Herb Sendek, "and trying to self-evaluate what we may have done different, I think one of the greatest challenges going into this season was that we really didn't know who we are? Just in terms of being be able to set guys up in the best positions to take advantage of their strengths.

"Whether it would be an offensive play or an individual's ability to learn more than one spot in a defensive rotation. When you have any newcomer the only way sometimes you find out the answer to those kinds of questions is you observe them, you coach them. It was magnified looking back at our non-conference season because we had almost a team full of those guys."

Sendek added that even returning players such as sophomores Trent Lockett and Ruslan Pateev have changed considerably from last season which compounded the overall process of trying to get a grasp on the team's characteristics. All in all, there was no other way to get a true feel for this year's Sun Devils but to go through the normal rigors of the season.

"Unless you were really a good guesser or a descendant of Nostradamus," Sendek deadpanned.

***

Several Injuries to its returning players certainly haven't made matters easier for a squad full of newcomers.

Trent Lockett who sprained his big toe early last week missed both of Arizona State's first two league games, but has a fairly good chance to suit up for the maroon and gold this week when they face the Bay Area schools.

"Trent is making good progress and is getting better," Sendek stated. "We still have to wait and see how he is by Thursday, but he is better than he was going into the Oregon trip when he wasn't able to practice or play at all."

Rihards Kuksiks was sick during the team's last two games but should be feeling better for this week's contests. On the other hand, Jamelle McMillan's groin pull will likely continue to be a lingering problem all season.

"It probably doesn't have a chance of being completely better unless he was shut down for a prolonged period of time," Sendek acknowledged. "I thought he was making some progress, but then it seems like he has a tweak.

"Fortunately he is a tough minded competitor that really wants to be out there. But he has one of those nagging, nuisance ‘I don't know if I'm going away anytime soon' injuries."

***

ASU's 60-55 win over Oregon was undoubtedly the coming out party for JC transfer Brandon Dunson. The guard admitted that it has probably taken him longer than he probably expected to contribute to the team, but he accepted that as part of the process. This mindset helped him to a career-high in points (14) and minutes played (29) "I think it was a good step for me and the other newcomers on the team," Dunson commented. "It gave all the newcomers confidence that we can really play at this level. It gave confidence to the coaches and the older guys that we have some help for them too."

Dunson, who often relieves McMillan in the lineup, naturally felt a sense of urgency to improve his play and work on the deficiencies of his game, as the senior is battling his aforementioned groin injury. "After the Nevada game when he was really struggling I figured I had to step up and play a little more. I think I improved my ball handling a lot, the ability to use both hands.

"Every level that you move up there is a lot more detail. I think that took me a little more while to get adjusted to. You have to prepare for every single thing you do. Whether it's handling the ball or catching the ball in triple threat…you just have to be very detailed and not let anything slip."

Sendek pointed out the significant transformation that Dunson has made in a matter of just a few months.

"If you take Oct. 15th to January 1st and you took a knife," Sendek said, "and divided that time period in halves or thirds and you were coaching him and you watched the first half or the first third, and now you go to practice these last two weeks – you have two different players. So not only have we been trying to integrate this group of new guys, but within that group there have been dramatic changes. So sometimes just when you think you do have the answer you walk back up to the office and you say ‘that changed.'

"There are more moving parts with this team than other teams. There are always moving parts, but there are more of them now. Last year, when all was said and done there was new player, Trent (Lockett), who was really playing. The others guys have just kind of been with us."

Sendek commented that Dunson is looking more comfortable on the floor and with his level of knowledge of the system. This has naturally led to a higher level of confidence and the subsequent improvement.

***

Carrick Felix is another first-year player who made his presence known in the Sun Devils' win last Saturday. Much like his fellow KC transfer Dunson he posted career highs in points (19) and minutes (34) and scored the team's last four points in what was a closely contested game.

"Obviously Carrick with his performance on Saturday showed us some things that we were expecting and hoping for," Sendek said, "He had spots of brilliance earlier in the season, but on Saturday he put everything together on both ends of the floor."

Like many of his fellow newcomers the various adjustments have been tough for Felix to deal with. Yet, as someone who has fought adversity more than once the resiliency instinct kicked in. The sophomore didn't feel a sense of validation after his career night, but at the same time he realizes the value of that performance.

"This is definitely something I can build on," Felix admitted. "I can't take what happened last weekend for granted and settle with that. My teammates were there for me and I just have to continue and work hard every day. I knew my opportunity would come and I have to keep pushing now."

Felix cited a higher comfort level and understanding of what is required of him as catalysts for his improvement. "Going out there and playing, and learning certain things, making mistakes that we can watch on film and the coaches can critique," Felix remarked, that has really helped me."

The wing player confessed that there was a sense of urgency with the absence of Lockett this past weekend. Even though he was the player who replaced him in the starting lineup, he claimed that the whole team felt that same notion.

"We know that we have to come together as a team," Felix explained. "Pac-10 season is a new season and we all have to play together because things are only going to get harder from here. We just have to stay focus in practice and in games.

"Everything is still fresh for the newcomers. We are not used to playing at this level and going through different adversities. We are one team and we have each other's back. I know some players on the team are having problems off the court and we are all here trying to help them out."

Felix agreed that the 80-58 loss to Oregon State, which preceded the Oregon win, was a significant wake-up call for him and his teammates. "After the game we realized that we have to become more than just ourselves," Felix recalled. "We have to come together as a team, put pride aside and come together a whole, as a fist."

On the same token, he felt that the Oregon game, albeit just the second conference contest, was a must win. "That win set us off for a good start and I have a feeling that we will get rolling here," Felix said.

Many expected players such as Felix and Dunson to lead the charge in transforming the Sun Devils to a more up tempo team. Some nay feel that only when that conversion takes place will ASU better itself, but Felix believes in substance over style.

"Once this team learns to play hard all the time, put 110 percent every game, that's where I think you'll see us change and play better," Felix said.

***

While the team picture may appear clearer; Sendek is not making any long term predictions on his team's prospects. However, he knows one thing to be certain.

"Each day is providing us with new insight, new growth opportunities," Sendek stated. "I wish I could tell you it's a linear progression, that we are on a rocket to the moon. But this season has already shown us that when we think we are ready to blast off somebody forgot to put gas in it. We have taken some detours.

"We have to establish some level of consistency. I really believe this: I don't think there is a game that we will go into the rest of our schedule that if we don't play well, we are not going to be extremely challenged. I don't see us just huffing and puffing and blowing someone's house down. We are going to have to win as a team."

However, it certainly not a gloom and doom picture that Sendek projects for his squad. In fact, he has seen some encouraging signs as of late.

"The most gratifying thing for a coach is to see guys get better, learn, improve," Sendek explained. "It's like being a parent. What is more exciting than sitting there on the floor when your son or daughter takes their first steps or says a new word? As a parent, as a teacher, as a leader, as a coach you always get a special feeling of joy, of satisfaction when you see somebody grow and improve. That's one thing I love most about coaching.

"You may not always get the result you want. We all want to win every game. But sometimes small victories are important. Notwithstanding the outcome of the game against Oregon, and we ended up scoring five more points than they did, beneath that it was gratifying because there were a lot more smaller victories."


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