2014-15 ASU Men’s Basketball Preview

The Sun Devils tip-off their season tomorrow night at home against Chicago State, and the maroon and gold are approaching the season with one simple objective: return and advance. After suffering a buzzer-beater loss to Texas in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last season, the Sun Devils are hoping for a better postseason outcome this time around.

Unfortunately history is not on the side of the Sun Devils.

The program has not made consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances since 1981. But that has not deterred ASU players from reverberating the program’s “return and advance” motto.

“We want to get back to the tournament and we want to go further,” said freshman post player Connor MacDougall. “Everything we do in practice is centered around the idea of accomplishing that goal.”

Talking about returning to the tournament and actually accomplishing the feat is a completely different story. A return trip will require a masterful coaching job from Herb Sendek, who is entering his ninth season as ASU’s skipper.

The Sun Devils lost their top three players – Jordan Bachysnki, Jahii Carson and Jermaine Marshall – to various pro leagues overseas. The trio accounted for 60 percent of the team’s scoring and often took the big shots in crunch time.

ASU’s defense must learn to exist without Bachynski, the conference’s all-time shot block leader. He was able to erase a lot of defensive mistakes with his uncanny shot blocking ability. This season the Sun Devils don’t have anybody remotely similar to Bachynski, which means they will have to take an alternate approach on the defensive end.

Another concern is the large amount of newcomers on this year’s squad. The coaching staff has had their hands full trying to integrate seven new players – many of whom are expected to play significant minutes this season. As one might expect, there is a learning curve that the coaches have been forced to overcome.

Despite the obvious obstacles, Sendek has been pleased with his team’s attitude and effort in the early stages.

"The one thing I love about this team is their character,” Sendek said at Monday’s press conference. “They're really good guys, they have a sense of humility. Everybody on the team right now has been exceptionally coachable.”

This has been apparent in preseason practices, where the play has been more competitive than years past. It’s not a stretch to say this is the most spirited group Sendek has had at Arizona State. Whether this translates to victories remains to be seen, but it’s certainly a good start.

One thing is for certain – things will look different on the court for ASU this season.

On offense, the Sun Devils don’t have a proven scorer like Carson or Marshall. In fact, the leading scorer amongst returnees is Shaq McKissic, who averaged nine points per game. As a result, ASU will likely employ a scoring-by-committee approach, which should work nicely considering the unselfishness of this year’s squad. If the preseason is any indication, ball movement in the half-court set should be much improved. The Devils also have the athletes to push the ball up the court for fast break opportunities.

Defensively, Arizona State will try to utilize the athleticism of the newcomers and apply more ball pressure to create turnovers. Fans will see the Devils press and trap more frequently than any other season in the Sendek era. In preparation for this new-look defense, Sendek spent the offseason watching video of teams like Louisville, VCU and Wichita State. The Sun Devils can also rely on the expertise of new assistant coach Barret Peery, who ran a suffocating style of defense at his previous school (Indian Hills Community College).

At the end of the day, Arizona State enters the 2014-15 campaign with more questions than answers.

The Devils have been labeled the mystery team of the Pac-12 by many pundits and rightfully so. With so many new faces on the roster, nobody knows exactly what to expect from Arizona State. It will certainly be interesting to see how this team develops as the season unravels.

Here a five storylines to watch:

1. Senior leadership. Arizona State will have a trio of seniors – Shaquielle McKissic, Jon Gilling and Bo Barnes – to lean on during this time of transition. Along with junior Eric Jacobsen, they have been a model of consistency in preseason practices. They have also been quick to help the newcomers with their learning curve. Here’s a little more about each player:

McKissic is expected to have a breakout season after being awarded a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA. The high-flying wing has looked good in preseason practices, but the Sun Devils will need him to be more assertive on the offensive end. He had a tendency to defer to his teammates last season, but he will be called upon to lead this group of newcomers. For all the rim-rattling dunks and 3-point baskets, perhaps the most impressive feature of his game is his discipline and mistake-free play. In his first season of Division I basketball, McKissic had a remarkable 3.2 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Gilling is a rarity in today’s college basketball scene. He’s a four-year player that has remained with the same school his entire career. A versatile combo forward and 3-point specialist, Gilling has predominately been a role player his first three seasons. After starting most of his career, he was asked to come off the bench midway through last season, and he didn’t bat an eyelash. The move was a pivotal point in the season – and allowed Arizona State to close out the season in strong fashion.

Gilling has been a cerebral player during his Sun Devil career. Sendek has frequently lauded Gilling for his basketball IQ and passing ability. However, much like McKissic, he will need to provide more consistent scoring this year.

After some uncertainty about his scholarship status, Barnes is back for one more season. Barnes, who actually graduated in the spring and is now pursuing a master’s degree, will once again be part of the regular rotation. With his timely shooting and scrappy defense, he was a valuable sparkplug off the bench last season.

On offense, he will again be asked to stretch the floor with his 3-point marksmanship. However, what makes him a fan favorite is his tireless work ethic and commitment to defense. Long term, he is best suited to come off the bench. However, don’t be surprised to see him begin the season as the starting shooting guard.

2. The junior college newcomers. Much of Arizona State’s success will hinge on four highly-touted JUCO transfers – Willie Atwood, Gerry Blakes, Savon Goodman and Roosevelt Scott. They enter the season with little fan fare, but are expected to make a major impact. All four should be fixtures in the rotation and will bring an edge to Arizona State. Coming from the JUCO ranks has not only made them thankful for their new surroundings, but has also inspired them to prove the doubters wrong.

“They have a chip on their shoulders and they push each other to be the best,” said ASU assistant coach Stan Johnson. “They’re excited about being Sun Devils. These are terrific kids that bleed maroon and gold.”

Atwood, a 6-foot-8 power forward, will be a matchup nightmare for Sun Devil opponents. He’s a face-up four man, who is equally comfortable shooting mid-range jumpers as he is playing on the low block. Sendek has said that he’s never had a player like Atwood during his tenure at ASU. He’s an adequate rebounder for his size and is serviceable on the defensive end. He will most likely be the starting power forward on opening night.

Blakes, a 6-foot-4 combo guard, is a natural born scorer. He can drive the ball to the hole with his herky-jerky style or can easily step back and nail a 3-pointer. Either way, he is not shy to pull the trigger. The biggest concern with him is his shot selection. If he can figure that out, he may have the highest ceiling of all four players. Blakes will be asked to play some point guard as well, but he is best suited to play off the ball. Defensively, he loves to apply ball pressure and is adept at forcing turnovers.

Goodman, a 6-foot-6 power forward, has a unique combination of strength, speed and athleticism. At times, including during the Maroon & Gold Scrimmage, he has been the most impressive player during the preseason. He loves to mix it up down low and is a beast on the boards despite being undersized. Offensively, he loves to run the lanes on fast breaks and may be the Devils’ best scorer in transition. Don’t forget that Goodman already has a year of Division-I basketball (played at UNLV as a freshman) under his belt. The bad news? As a midseason transfer, Goodman is not eligible until Dec. 16 at Marquette.

Scott is the defensive ace of the group. At 6-foot-3, he has the potential to be a lockdown defender in the Pac-12. He is an integral piece of the Sun Devils’ new game plan on defense. His offensive game is not too shabby either. He attacks the rim with driving layups and is especially dangerous in the open court. If there is an area of concern for Scott, it is perimeter shooting. If he can connect on a consistent basis, he will be impossible to defend.

3. Overall athleticism. This is easily the most athletic team – from top to bottom – in the Sendek era. In past seasons, Sendek had stated that he wanted to play faster, but he never seemed to have enough athletes to sustain that style of play. This season could be different.

“We have a lot of guys that can get up and down the floor quickly,” said Blakes. “I think our athleticism will surprise a lot of people.”

In particular, players like McKissic, Goodman, Blakes and Scott are tailor-made to excel at a faster pace. The improved athleticism will also give the Sun Devils more flexibility on the defensive end. It allows the Sun Devils to extend their defense and utilize more pressing and trapping schemes.

And at the very least, this infusion of athleticism will be more entertaining for the fans.

4. Frontcourt size and rebounding. Eric Jacobsen will be the most important player on the ASU roster this season, but it has nothing to do with his talent. Instead it has everything to do with his size. He is only player on the roster that stands taller than 6-foot-8. And with Jacobsen’s proclivity for picking up fouls, the lack of size becomes an even bigger concern this season. The coaching staff is hoping for a big improvement from the 6-foot-10 junior center. Sendek has a solid track record of developing big men during their Sun Devil careers. Case in point: Bachynski, Jeff Ayres(Pendergraph) and Eric Boateng. If the Devils have any chance of competing with the upper echelon of the Pac-12, they’ll need Jacobsen to take the next step in his development.

Jacobsen will have some help in the frontcourt. As mentioned above, JUCO transfers Atwood and Goodman both figure to play significant minutes. Both players are capable rebounders and Goodman has the potential to be a very good rebounder.

Another post player who could see some action is freshman Connor MacDougall. The 6-foot-8 forward/center has a sturdy frame and is active around the basket. Like most freshmen, he has had some difficulties grasping the intricacies of the offensive and defensive schemes. However, he is a hard worker who can provide energy and rebounding off the bench. He will likely see more action at the beginning of the season since Goodman is out until mid-December.

5. Point guard play. It’s never easy to replace a talented player like Jahii Carson. But coach Sendek has gushed about the potential of freshman Tra Holder. As the only pure point guard on the roster, Holder should receive the lion’s share of minutes this season. The 6-foot-1 lead guard has been one of the pleasant surprises in the preseason. In practices and scrimmages, Holder exhibits a cool demeanor on the court – he seems to be unfazed by the expectations or pressure of leading a team. Unlike his predecessor, Holder is a pass-first type of point guard and is constantly looking to set up his teammates. He can get into the lane and score as well, but he seems to prefer the facilitator role.

Holder is the only true point guard on the roster, but players like Blakes and Chance Murray could also see some action at the one. Blakes is a solid ball handler and can get into the lane at will. However, he has a tendency to attempt the more difficult/flashy play instead of opting for the more conservative/boring play. Murray, on the other, is a sound decision-maker on the court. However, inconsistent shooting in the preseason has hampered his effectiveness. Both players are better suited to play off the ball, but in a pinch they are capable of running the point.

Best Case Scenario: Everything comes together for the Sun Devils – the seniors lead by example, the JUCO newcomers gel quickly, Jacobsen improves and finds a way to stay out of foul trouble, the team rebounds at a high level, the athleticism allows ASU to play faster and Holder holds down the point guard position.

If all this occurs, and that’s a big if, the Sun Devils could finish as high as fourth or fifth in the conference and…wait for it…sneak into the NCAA Tournament as a double-digit seed.

Worst Case Scenario: The seniors continue to play more like role players, the JUCO newcomers are not ready to contribute, ASU is continually outrebounded and outmuscled in the paint, the defensive potential is never realized and the point guard play is shaky.

In this scenario, the Sun Devils finish as low as 9th or 10th in the conference and aren’t even sniffing an NIT berth.

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