Felix embraces critical seven-game stretch

Arizona State hits the road this week, looking to rebound from last Saturday's narrow home defeat to Stanford while hoping to improve its chances of qualifying for the NCAA tournament at season's end. It's the start of a crucial seven-game stretch and while their backs may be up against the wall, senior Carrick Felix remains calm as he prepares for the challenge ahead.

A season that began with low expectations, including a preseason predicted 11th place finish in the Pac-12 by members of the media at the conference's media day in Los Angeles, took an unexpected turn for the better when Arizona State (18-6, 7-4) swept its first two games of the conference season at home against Utah and Colorado back in early January.

With their season on the line, the Sun Devils kick off the defining stretch of games back where it all started. ASU plays five of its remaining seven conference games on the road, beginning this week when they travel to the mountain states to take on Utah and Colorado once again.

"It definitely gives us some confidence but at the same time you never know," said Felix on Tuesday about playing a pair of teams the Sun Devils have already defeated this season. "You don't want to go into these games overly confident. You want to go in with a mind-set that it's going to be a 40 minute game and I think that's the most important thing."

First up for ASU are the Utes, who for the second consecutive year have struggled to find their footing in the Pac-12. Utah (10-13, 2-9) enter the week tied for last place in the conference, but have given other Pac-12 foes all they can handle along the way, including taking the Sun Devils to overtime in their first meeting of the season before running out of gas, losing 55-54.

"It lets you know the conference has grown, because with Utah, even though their record may not reflect it, they've been playing with the top teams in the Pac-12 down to the wire," said Felix.

A large reason for Utah's ability to push their opponents to the wire has been the stellar play of its defense. Coming into the week, the Utes rank second in the Pac-12 in team defense, allowing just 62.3 points per game while limiting teams to just 38% shooting from the field, good for tops in the league.

"They're a really good defensive team this year," remarked Felix. "By them being able to switch everything and change their match-ups, it makes it harder for other teams to go against. That's something they did to us in the first game, making us take shiest we didn't want to take. Switching their small defenders on our bigger defenders which made different match-ups and made us want to take quicker shots. We don't want to settle for those.

"But Utah is becoming a really good defensive team and they can shoot the ball as well."

Since they joined the Pac-12, Felix has averaged 15 points and 7 rebounds in three games against the Utes, shooting 56% from the field (18-32).

On top of facing a stingy Utah defense, the Sun Devils, who are 2-2 on the season in conference road games, will be playing their first road game of the season on a Wednesday night this week, as opposed to the traditional Thursday/Saturday conference format.

The team departed for Salt Lake City early Tuesday afternoon, cutting into their normal preparation in what's arguably the biggest week of the season for the Sun Devils. Still, Felix maintains the team remains focused on the task at hand and doesn't expect the unusual scheduling to affect the team.

"We've definitely been a lot more focused in practice and have a high energy level going into this week," he stated. "I think the guys and coaching stuff have been going over everything in great detail so I think we'll be ready. All the teams we're playing now we've already played before, so it's just like kind of review (the game plan) and go over who's hot right now and look at some of the new stuff teams have put in.

"We're still preparing the same. There's definitely a longer turnaround, an extra two days off, which I think is good so we can get our legs back for that Saturday game. Other than that, everything is going good."

Awaiting Arizona State on Saturday is a Colorado (16-7, 6-5) team who's playing their best basketball of the season, having won five of their last six games to climb back into the conference race and place themselves back on the proverbial NCAA tournament bubble, along without the Sun Devils. The Buffs are 12-1 on their home floor this season and have won 41 of their last 46 at the Coors Events Center, quickly becoming one the premiere home court advantages in the Pac-12.

"Their crowd is definitely very intense," said Felix. "Colorado is a tough place to play at. There aren't enough words I can use to describe the Colorado atmosphere but they're a very good team. They had been struggling a little but have been playing really (well) down the stretch. It's definitely going to be a tough game."

On top of the crowd noise and surging Buffs, ASU will likely have to adjust to playing at the higher Colorado altitude, something that effected the team last year but Felix expects won't be as much of a problem this time around.

"I think it comes down to going out there and playing hard," he remarked. "There's going to be situations where you can't breathe but once you adapt to it I think it'll be okay."

The last seven games of the regular season won't only determine ASU's post-season fate but also further shape the legacy of Felix, the budding local product who after struggling to adjust in his first two years in Tempe, has enjoyed one of the finer final seasons of any Sun Devil player in the program's history.

While the task is tall and daunting, Felix says he wouldn't have it any other way.

"It's nerve-racking but exciting at the same time," he said. "For me it's kind of emotional because it could possibly be my last seven games, so it's kind of scary in a sense. But it's definitely exciting just being around the guys and knowing that everyone is going to give their all and 100% effort in these last seven games. It's fun.

"We know we have seven games left and we know we have the opportunity to make the NCAA tournament. We know what's at stake and what we're capable of but we just try to make sure we stay in the present, because if we don't take care of now, there won't be a future."

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