ASU's stifling zone defense has been its calling card ever since head coach Herb Sendek arrived in Tempe five years ago. Having said that, this scheme wasn't complemented by a fast paced offense over that period yet this season high tempo will become a foundation of the ASU offense.
With no seniors on the team and only two players that have played under Sendek for the last two years, it is only natural to have some players still try and find their way and establish their role on the team while making sure that their effort remains consistent in the process.
Even with a trio of established players last year in Jamelle McMillan, Ty Abbott and Rihards Kuksiks, the Sun Devils still had to rely on seven newcomers when it came to depth if not consistent contributions when one of three aforementioned players was sidelined by injury, an occurrence that unfortunately occurred often.
Those now second-year players remain the nucleus of the ASU team (and with the departure of JC transfer Brandon Dunson they now number just six) and the obvious hope is that the season that they now have under their belt, as trying and unfulfilling as it was, will pay dividends for the current campaign as these players will see their roles and responsibilities increase.
Therefore, even being in a rare situation of having no seniors, ASU won't have to rely on as many first-year players as they did during their 12-19 (4-14 Pac-10) season. On the same token, a team lacking seniors could have leadership issues to contend with.
While it may not be fair to call outgoing seniors, Abbott and Kuksiks, one dimensional players on offense, no one will challenge the fact that this tandem's biggest attribute was their deft three-point shooting. It is a trait that even McMillan was able to execute at times with great success. Their departures did force ASU to develop an offense that is less dependent on three-point shots, and one that brings the crowd pleasing fast paced scheme.
The Sun Devils plan to open up the floor and take advantage of their big and athletic guards who can put the ball on the floor, break down the defense, use ball screens and create easy baskets. It is also a scheme that will be effective in transition. All in all, it is a system that will attack more off the bounce simply because this is what the team's personnel make-up will dictate.
Needless to say that just because a new system now lends itself to the players' strengths, doesn't mean that the transition has been seamless. All five players on the floor have to be on the same page and as mentioned some of these individuals will be carrying out assignments that are foreign to them or just broader in scope than ever before.
Defensively speaking, ASU will retain its zone defense which employs a lot of man-to-man principles. There is no argument that this scheme was far less effective last year than it was in Sendek's first four years in Tempe which is causing many fans to demand a change in scheme.
However, certain principles of any good defense still has to be followed and you can undoubtedly make the argument that not following those principles is what hindered the 2010-11 Sun Devils rather than playing zone over man. Keeping the ball in front of you, rebounding, rotating, etc. are essentials that are the pillars of any successful defense and the ASU players were not able to master them.
Ironically, even with eight returning players essentially playing the same defensive scheme as last season, there is still much room for improvement as some players are now being put in different spots of the floor and carrying out different assignments.
ASU's zone defense does still provides the team with the best advantage. That is not to say that switching to a man defense didn't cross the staff's minds in the off-season particularly in light of the more athletic makeup of the team. Nonetheless, when the ASU coaches have talked to the counterparts in the conference the general sentiment is that ASU's zone's advantages outweigh a change to another scheme and will constantly force the opponent to spend considerable preparation time for it, perhaps comprising other aspects of their preparation.
The Sun Devils rebounding woes, especially against its conference opponents have been well documented and have directed even more criticism to the zone scheme which by nature does pose challenges collecting caroms. Furthermore, smaller lineups on the floor naturally didn't help this aspect. This season one can expect to see bigger lineups on the floor to combat that rebounding deficiency, although those lineups at the end of the day have to be more productive on both ends of the floor in order to be justified. Needless to say that the lineup combinations are far from being etched in stone at this point of the year.
Here is a look at the scholarship players and their expected contributions this season:
Carrick Felix – the 6-6 guard is the proverbial "freak athlete" who you come to expect SportsCenter Top 10 play baskets on any given night. You can also make the argument that he is the team's X-factor and that it would be impossible to imagine ASU having a more than anticipated successful season without Felix being a significant contributor.
The raw talent of Felix, who actually signed with Duke University coming out of Junior College is undeniable. How he can utilize this talent to best help ASU isn't quite as simple. He is a poor man's Shawn Marion in the sense that plays will rarely be called for him, but his ability to play above the rim and beat his man with his pure athleticism are assets he has to utilize to generate points whether it's on set play, in transition or cleaning up a missed shot or a broken play. Either way it's imperative that he doesn't get lost in the shuffle offensively as he finds his niche.
Chris Colvin – make no mistake about it. ASU was happy as it is when it landed the 6-2 JC guard. Now with the academic eligibility of Jahii Carson still in limbo, Colvin has simply been a godsend for the Sun Devils in Carson's absence. Colvin did play one year at Iowa State before leaving for junior college, so playing at a high-major level isn't foreign to him by any means. Thus, along with his talent the Sun Devils are enjoying his experience these days as he establishes himself at the starting point guard spot.
He has arguably been the team's best player all throughout the pre-season. His quickness on both ends of the floor is quite evident. He is one of the best on-ball defenders Sendek has ever had at ASU, and on offense he's able to break down defenses and find the open player utilizing good decision making. His outside shot has been consistent enough to keep defenders honest. All in all, Colvin is ensuring that there will be no drop-off at the point guard position after McMillan's departure and we wouldn't be surprised if ultimately his contributions will exceed that of the outgoing senior.
Kyle Cain – during the non-conference portion of the schedule the then freshman forward was able to burst onto the scene in impressive fashion. The rigors of the conference slate later in the season took its toll on the 6-7 forward who was the de facto center of the team being outmatched nightly by his counterparts.
In the off-season he has developed the most physically out of all his teammates adding 20 plus pounds of muscle. His extraordinary work ethic has helped him achieve that physical improvement, as well as his improvement on the floor where he had developed more of a mid-range jump shot. Consequently, the staff is more comfortable playing him alongside of ASU's centers and helping to put him in a more favorable matchup game by game.
Evan Gordon – the guard who transferred from Liberty will have to sit this season out, but the skill set of the 6-3 Gordon provides a formidable challenge in practice for the Sun Devil guards. He has shown to be a prolific scorer in the pre-season and can definitely be labeled as a pleasant surprise in that sense. He is a true combo guard who handles the ball very well and creates plays.
Jordan Bachynski – if you surveyed ASU fans as to which player they are the most anxious about to have a breakout year, the 7-2 center is more than likely to win that vote running away. Arriving in Tempe last year, Bachynski was already fighting an uphill battle being out of basketball for three years due to an injury his senior year of high school and then serving two years on a Mormon mission.
Has he shown flashes of brilliance? At times he has. Yet, his rate of development is still too slow in the eyes of many. Being a consistent presence around the rim is something the staff has been yearning for him to achieve but the road to that feat is still a long one to travel. He has been slowed down by a hernia surgery a few months ago which has affected his conditioning which is another challenge he has to overcome. Should he be further along than he is right now? Probably a hard question to answer, but if he can put more effort into all aspects of his game he just may elevate himself to be a valuable inside presence.
Chanse Creekmur – as mentioned this year's ASU squad doesn't figure to be as prolific a three-point shooting team as it was in years past, therefore the Sun Devils will look to the 6-5 forward to provide that invaluable long range threat. It would be unfair to label the sophomore as nothing more than a three-point specialist, especially due to the fact that he has a high basketball IQ, especially on defense. Being an all-around contributor is something that can alleviate any pressure Creekmur may feel shouldering the burden of being the designated long range jump shooter, nonetheless refining all aspects of his game is something Creekmur will have to work at in earnest.
Keala King – the most ironic byproduct of Carson's absence is that his good friend King, has taken full advantage of this opportunity and is now starting at guard alongside Colvin, and playing well to boot. It's no secret that the 6-4 King had a volatile freshman season and whispers of a possible transfer were common knowledge as the season progressed. Yet, didn't let his frustrations get the best of him and actually strung a few nice contributions late in the season.
His attitude and productivity in the off-season has been excellent and if he continues on that path he stands to be one of the bigger contributors on the squad. His size and athleticism can be a handful for defenders and he has never backed down from contact. He's one player worth tracking to see if he can get over the hump and start justifying the lofty accolades he came with.
Ruslan Pateev – the 7-0 center is known as the ASU fans' whipping boy and truth be told that he has been frustrating at times to watch. But if we are dealing with the here and now, he has been one of the pleasant surprises in the off-season and much to the chagrin of others has established himself as a starter over fan favorite Bachynski.
The junior's effort has been consistent and physically he appears to be more ready to play the game compared to this time last year. His work ethic has caught the eyes of the staff and contrary to popular belief his ceiling of potential is still pretty high and a dramatic improvement in his play can go a long way in improving the overall team play. He's one of the team's better passers but needs to develop into a menacing presence in the paint on defense.
Trent Lockett – as the team's most experienced and talented player, one cannot overestimate the importance of the junior as a potential go-to guy and leader. Slowly but surely he's growing into those roles. Much like Felix, with his superior athleticism Lockett can do more damage in transition, driving to the rim rather than being a jump shooter, but has strong enough of a frame to post-up his defender and find a way to score in that manner.
He is one of the better rebounders on the team and he will be called upon to execute that role every game. Free throw shooting has been a glaring shortcoming last year for Lockett and it's beyond imperative that he experience a 180 degree turnaround in that department. With all the endless hours he spent in the gym over the summer, you'd like to see that effort pay off. Lockett is much more a leader by example but will probably have to be more of a vocal leader for his teammates.
Jonathan Gilling – easily the surprise addition of the 2011 recruiting class, the 6-8 Dane is probably one of the more intriguing players on the team. The forward played for the last two years against much older players in his homeland and that experience can serve him well in college. Once he has a firm grasp of ASU's scheme he should develop into a quality rotation guy that has a pure shot and some good size to go along with it. Being a true freshman from overseas may see his development occur slower than others but he could be worth the wait.
The 2011-12 team would love nothing else than to remove the bitter taste they have in their mouths over last season. Playing sound defense, improving rebounding on both ends of the court, getting easy baskets in transition as a result of good defense will be the keys to a successful turnaround.
High expectations were not met last year and the team hopes that the low expectations placed on them this season will have the same outcome to prove the pundits wrong.