Growing pains should pay off for Sun Devils

Before Herb Sendek began a streak of three consecutive 20-win seasons, the Sun Devils had to take their lumps and the coach's first year at the helm ended in an 8-22 season. Following a 12-19 2010-11 campaign that resulted in a last place finish in the conference, the hope is that this will once again be a prelude for a better season proving that the Devils' recent success was not an aberration.

Seven newcomers spent the 2010-11 season cutting their teeth in the world of Division I basketball, going through a challenging non-conference slate and a Pac-10 league that delivered Arizona State a 4-14 league record and proved to be stronger than expected. ASU had only five returning players, but by and large and for various reasons that group was never able to successfully carry the team on its back and mask the normal learning curve the first-year players were going through.

In a lot of ways this group of players as a whole had a hard time grasping a match-up zone defense that has become a strong staple of this Sun Devil squad and menace for its conference foes in the last four years. Granted, you can make the argument that this year the assorted Pac-10 coaching staffs did a better job combating that scheme and the sheer familiarity factor is part of that. Nonetheless, this past year's squad generally had a very tough time executing on this end of the floor and finishing last in the league in rebounding margin was just one manifestation of that shortcoming.

Due to the ineffectiveness of the zone defense , there were certainly some who demanded that the team abandon that system and move to a man-to-man scheme if for nothing else to possibly catch opponents off-guard.

However, one can make an argument that if a team playing zone cannot stop dribble penetration or cover shooters in the corners, there is definitely no guarantee that it could do so in man-to-man. The inconsistent rebounding that plagued ASU would probably not help to generate a miraculous turnaround when playing a different scheme. The fundamentals of any defense are the same and the Sun Devils did a poor job executing them. There is a physical element to playing defense, again regardless of scheme, and the team probably in large part to their youth simply didn't posses that necessary aspect.

There is no doubt that the seven newcomers' potential help pundits and the coaching staff alike to proclaim this squad as the deepest, most athletic and most talented in the Sendek era in Tempe. But again, buying into what the staff was preaching was a process that took much longer than anyone expected and you can make an argument that this process actually never materialized and heavily contributed to the trying season the team had.

Here is our evaluation of the team's players:

Jamelle McMillan (7.2 PPG, 3.9 APG) – A true senior leader, McMillan was never one to put the gaudiest statistical lines and a nagging groin injury which hampered him for the last two months of the season did nothing to improve his performance. It's nearly impossible for an offense to be fully functional without a capable floor general and that is what ASU had to contend with all year long. McMillan's best moment of the year was his final weekend as a Sun Devil when he combined to score 21 points and dish out 14 assists in his last two games at Wells Fargo Arena.

He did improve his jump shot significantly and his 2.68 assist to turnover ratio was tops in the Pac-10 and he also ranked in the upper echelon of the conference in steals. On the other hand, he wasn't able to facilitate a higher tempo on offense or consistently break down his defender and drive to the paint. But his impact on the game and his teammates was clearly felt both on and off the floor and we will always remain wondering how much more of a contribution he could have made if healthy.

Ty Abbott (12.4 PPG, 38% 3PT) – It was a tough season for Abbott as he struggled in his role as the go-to scorer and much like McMillan was never fully healthy for the entire season. Abbott would sometimes disappear for halves at a time but when he was on his game, he was unstoppable. He did however have a hard time finishing at the basket on the rare occasions that he did drive to the bucket. Like McMillan, his regular season ended in superb fashion as he scored 22 points in both games of Senior Week to sweep the Oregon schools at home. Abbott leaves ASU as one the most prolific shooters in school's history as well as a top notch defender.

Rihards Kuksiks (10.4 PPG, 39% 3PT) – Speaking of prolific shooters, the Riga, Latvia native shot 227 field goal attempts this year and only 50 of those were inside the arc. ‘Rik' was a bit of a one-trick pony during his tenure at ASU with the three-ball but his improvement over the years was obvious and the site of a Latvian flag waving in the student section will be missed. Highlight of the year was a big 21-point effort vs. USC as the Devils nearly upset the eventual tourney-bound Trojans. Kuksiks came into the season in the best shape he has ever been but much like his fellow seniors could never shake off the injury bug all year and fully display his improved athleticism.

Trent Lockett (13.4 PPG, 5.3 RPG) – Talk about making a leap. A few years ago after Ty Abbott had a huge freshman campaign, the media was clamoring for a breakout sophomore campaign that never came. Lockett didn't disappoint in following up his Pac-10 All-Freshman season a year ago with a big season this year as he led the Devils in scoring and was second in rebounds. Lockett was the only Sun Devil who due to his aggressive play got to the free throw line with any regularity and his passion was evident even in a lost season. He did get to showcase an improved jump shot although probably not with the degree of consistency he and the team would hope for. Hands down he will be the leader, if not the go-to guy on offense in 2011-12.

Kyle Cain (5.4 PPG, 5.5 RPG) – In the non-conference slate, Kyle Cain was a force to be reckoned with as he was a tenacious rebounder and scored second chance points at will. Alas, the fun stopped during Pac-10 play when opposing teams clogged the middle with taller players than Cain and severely exposed ASU's lack of interior size. Most impressive line of the season was his 12-point, 17-rebound performance against a good Long Beach St. team in December. He did play out of position at center, but in order for him to play power forward he will need to improve on his jump shot. Good news is that the potential of that happening is greater than some nay think.

Carrick Felix (4.6 PPG, 1.6 RPG) – If you complied a video of the top 10 dunks in the league there is no possible way that Felix's exploits get left out. The one-time Duke commit soared early on in January with big games against Oregon, Stanford, and Tulsa but his playing time slowly faded after he had a bout with the flu and then he had a bout with his jump shot. Felix and his 43-inch plus vertical is a guy we can see really exploding into a Lockett-type zone but he will have to compliment his game with a consistent jump shot, one that he was able to occasionally showcase late in the year.

Keala King (3.7 PPG, 2.6 RPG) – A personal favorite of ours, King is the best on the team at penetrating through a defense and getting to the basket. Having said that, he did have issues finishing at the rim. If King can get his outside shooting back to where it should be (shot just 1-18 from three-point range), his game will open up quite a bit and he will make a big impact next year. His best game was at USC when he put up 14 points including 6-6 from the charity stripe, a contest where he really revealed the enormous potential he has. His turnaround late in the year was also due to his willingness to follow the staff's directives and now he's poised to really turn the corner now that he is a year older, a year wiser.

Chanse Creekmur (3.1 PPG, 33% 3PT) – Creekmur, or as he called by his teammates "Rik Jr.' showed flashes of what he can do when he was given more playing time late in the season replacing Kuksiks was hurt including his huge game against Washington St. when he went off for 18 points in the upset of the Cougars. It will be interesting to see if Creekmur takes over Kuksiks' role playing closer to the paint or if Sendek goes bigger and allows Chanse to play on the perimeter a bit more. Like many good shooters, Creekmur's ability to drive the lane is an aspect he needs to work on.

Ruslan Pateev (3.0 PPG, 2.0 RPG) – Still a work in progress, Pateev had moments of brilliance this season but often times looked out of place on defense and looked uncomfortable in the post when he had the ball. Another offseason of building strength and improving his post moves would be beneficial to him and the program, but even though he was at times the fans' favorite whipping boy he probably has more upside that some ASU followers give him credit for.

Jordan Bachynski (2.8 PPG, 2.3 RPG) – The numbers weren't great and there were some cringe-worthy moments as the season went along. Nonetheless, Bachynski was away from basketball for three years due to injuries and his Mormon mission and he was pretty solid considering. Like Pateev, his conditioning was obviously going to take time and that doesn't change – now he needs to bulk up and get tougher in the paint. The big men this year for ASU were soft and had no mean streak. That needs to change and Bachynski could be the one leading the charge.

Corey Hawkins (2.0 PPG, 30% 3PT) – His playing time was inconsistent to say the least but in the late going, Hawkins saw more minutes and we got a chance to see what he was capable of. Although he may not be a point guard, he is definitely a player capable of producing offense in a pinch and his high basketball IQ served him very well. His above average rebounding skills may have been one of the bigger surprises this season. If he can improve his athleticism and speed he stands to make even a bigger impact in years to come.

Brandon Dunson (2.1 PPG, 0.9 APG) – A player we didn't see much of as the season progressed, Dunson needs to improve his ball-handling and decision making skills before he can run the offense for the Devils. He does however have some viable leadership skills that can serve this team well in this upcoming year.

Marcus Jackson (1.0 PPG, 1.0 APG) – A walk-on whose hard work paid off first paid off with a scholarship (albeit one that is will be just for the 2010-11 season) and later resulted in getting his first career start that was a refreshing story during a tough season. Jackson adds energy and he can distribute well. However, he was clearly overmatched when facing Pac-10 contemporaries but this underclassman has some room to grow and improve.

ASU's 2011 recruiting class is far from being complete, but the one addition to date, local Mesa High School point guard Jahii Carson, is a very significant newcomer to say the least.

Carson, a four-star prospect and ranked nationally 8th in his position by Scout.com, naturally carries extremely high expectations that can also come across as very lofty. It goes without question there will be a lot asked from Carson and he certainly has some of the vital tools necessary for success.

Nonetheless, just like any true freshman it is still unknown how fast he can adjust to a higher level of play and higher level of responsibilities.

For such a talented and charismatic player, it will be imperative for Carson to stay within the boundaries of his game and do what he does best. Carson may be in for rude awakening when he gets his first taste of college basketball, yet he does have the potential to adjust quickly and apply his god given talents on a bigger stage. Even though ASU fans have been affectionally calling him ‘Jahiisus' for several weeks now, he isn't the savior of ASU basketball and certainly won't advance the Sun Devils' cause by getting out of his comfort zone and taking on unneeded pressure.

As we mentioned with McMillan earlier, a team will normally go as far as their point guard will take them. It would be difficult, if not flat out impossible, to imagine Carson turning in an average at best freshman season and yet for ASU to experience marked improvement in terms of their season record and collective performance. An effective Carson can allow ASU to have a better transition game and an offense that can better utilize ball screens and overall play at a higher tempo. Teammates such as King and Felix should absolutely flourish with Carson on the floor.

Regardless of the significant change that Carson can deliver to ASU, the returning players will clearly have to do their part in order to reverse the team's fortunes this fall.

There are some intangibles that can make bad teams good and good teams great, but those subtleties have eluded ASU all year. Finishing last in scoring offense as well as free throw percentage are prime examples of that. ASU was the team that was at times on the cusp of finding success but five conference losses by five points or less and continuous mental breakdowns ultimately dug this group a hole that was impossible to climb out of. You certainly don't want to bring up the numerous injuries and the inexperience as excuses, but those are factors that have to be part of the discussion when you examine the Sun Devils' woes in 2010-11.

The Sun Devil nation isn't the only that is left with a very bad taste in their mouths, since they share that sentiment with the ASU players. The collective psyche of the players is that the 2011-12 simply cannot be a repeat performance of this past season. Many of these individuals come from extremely successful programs and are simply not accustomed to being on a team that has gone through long droughts in search for a win. When preparing for next season, no one on the team is accepting the proverbial rebuilding mode after losing three seniors and the players since the end of the season are projecting a strong sense of commitment to improving their game.

At the end of the day, the seven newcomers did get their feet wet and did get to experience everything and anything that this conference has thrown at them. Therefore, the core of this team will be one that will be better suited dealing with the elements. Furthermore, they now understand through their baptism by fire how hard they have to play in order to find success in this league. Many of ASU's losses weren't due to disparities in talent, but rather succumbing to players who possessed the savvy that most of the Sun Devil squad didn't acquire yet at the time.

That should not be the case next year.


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