Rough, But Necessary, Season Almost Over

Any fan that follows Sun Devil men's basketball felt that the 2006-2007 season was going to be a rough one. Unfortunately, we our expectations have been realized. Even without knowing how good the Pac 10 was going to be this year, many ASU fans predicted a struggle to hit double digit wins in Coach Herb Sendek's initial season.

As we sit today, the Sun Devils only have seven wins with four regular season games and the Pac 10 Tournament still to play. Barring a miraculous turn of events, winning three more games to get to ten victories seems about as likely as Willie Tuitama getting up after taking a sack.

So it's been a rough year for diehard ASU hoops fans (yes, I'm talking about all 857 of us). Not winning a game for almost two months is about as bad as it can get and watching close loss after close loss has been completely frustrating.

Luckily, there have been some positives that can be used to give some hope to Sun Devil fans. And hope is about all we have right now, so let's embrace it and talk about why this season is not a wasted season and is a necessary step in the growth of the players and program.

We actually have an identifiable system – on both ends of the court!

When was the last time you could make that statement? For the past few years, I have watched ASU hoops intently, trying to discern exactly what we were trying to do on either end of the floor. When Ike Diogu donned the maroon and gold, it was obvious that our goal was to get him the ball as often as possible and then just get out of the way and let him score or get fouled. That's a good strategy when a player of Ike's caliber comes along, but it isn't a system. And when Ike left, the Devils looked lost and without purpose on the offensive end.

And, despite a coach's claim that he was going to teach the Pac 10 how to play defense, we were even worse on that end of the court than we were offensively! We didn't play much zone and it wasn't effective when we did. We didn't play "in your face," high pressure man-to-man defense. We didn't press. We didn't trap. And, unfortunately, we didn't stop the ball from going in the hole very often.

All of that has now changed. In one year, the Devils now have an identity, both offensively and defensively. When we have the ball, we're going to run the flex and try to get easy shots through back picks for lay ups or down picks for easy jumpers from the elbow. Occasionally, we'll run a set where a big man will screen for the PG out high and then dive to the block to set up in the post. Unfortunately, we're also probably going to abuse the rim with most of our outside shots and a decent number of free throws, but that isn't by design and should improve as the team matures and the skill level rises.

Defensively, we are going to extend a match-up zone out past the three-point line and force teams to make good decisions and hit (hopefully contested) shots. Also, we're going to rebound the basketball. Teams will have a hard time scoring consistently.

Whether these schemes are the correct ones for sustained success in the Pac 10 is a different debate for a different time. The point is that Sendek and his staff has been able to give the team an identity in less than one full season. The schemes on offense will change some as more talent is available, but the style of ball we will play won't change much, which is good for the long term health of the program.

Three freshmen and a sophomore are in the starting line up

On most nights, we start freshmen at both guard positions as well as at small forward. The best player on our team is a sophomore center. Only the power forward position is manned by a senior. Additionally, only one senior gets any meaningful minutes off the bench. In other words, if it is true that players improve most between their freshman and sophomore season, we should see a marked improvement in the Devils' backcourt play and production. We will miss Serge and Allen's contributions, hustle, and most importantly their character; however, the return of a young nucleus and the addition of talented newcomers will give ASU more than a puncher's chance in many games next season.

Big shots in big moments

With the newcomers that are arriving next fall, Christian Polk may not have the ball in his hands as much in late game situations next season. However, he has shown that he is not afraid to take the game winning or game tying shot and he has hit his fair share of them despite his relative youth and lack of accolades coming out of high school.

More than likely, James Harden will be the focus of the Devils' late game possessions next year; however, it is nice to know that there is another player on the team that is willing and capable in late game situations. At the very least, it will make opponents consider a second scoring threat and not let them focus on just one player.

Wells Fargo Arena actually has a pulse

I've been very critical of our fans. And, I think that criticism is well deserved most of the time. The fans haven't really embraced the hoops team and been behind them through thick and thin, but the crowd (especially the students) has really stepped it up toward the end of the year. Granted, when I say that they've stepped up I am still taking about a half empty arena; however, the ones that are there are enthusiastic and into the game. The crowd has gotten better with recognizing great hustle plays and is slowly starting to create a buzz in the arena when the Devils take the court.

Don't get me wrong, I still feel that the crowd can be better and I still cringe at the memories of many fans missing a hoops game to watch a football game Michigan-Ohio State) that didn't involve our conference foes or impact ASU's season at all, but baby steps are being made and the environment at WFA is becoming a fun place to be.

Coach Sendek

We're lucky to have landed a coach with Herb Sendek's credentials, experience, and accolades. He obviously knows how to build a program that is successful on a consistent basis (with "success" being invitations to the NCAA Tournament) and proved that at NC State. That is a level of success that ASU has not enjoyed since the Ned Wulk years. Before the Sun Devils can compete for a Pac 10 title every year, they need to win more than they lose in conference play and beat quality out of conference opponents more often than not. Sendek has proven he can do that in a very tough conference and is still the second youngest coach in the Pac 10.

And all of that doesn't take into account that he really seems to care about building not only a winner on the court but also a fun basketball environment that relies on fans/alums, the students, and the team to hold up their respective ends of the bargain. As I mentioned above, the crowd seems to be responding to Herb's message.


So, as we sit here basking in the glow of our first conference win and a recognizable improvement in the team's quality of play, there are a lot of positives to take away from what has been an otherwise disappointing season – even if we don't win another game. Players have improved. Coaches have gotten their message across to the players. Fans have shown up and been involved. We avoided the dubious honor of being the only team to go 0-18 in conference play. And an influx of talent is on the way.

Of course, it would be great to knock off Arizona this weekend to reward the players again, kick the Wildcats when they're seemingly down, put them square on the NCAA Tournament bubble, and get a good, courtside view of the impending meltdown within their fan base. However, that would just be icing on the cake (although that would be some SWEET icing). Even a beat down at the hands of the unwashed wouldn't do too much to tarnish what has been accomplished already this season.

Finally, I want to say thanks to the seniors that will be playing their last games at Wells Fargo on Sunday evening. This group has not been part of much success on the court during their time in Tempe, but they have been good students, solid citizens, and will look back at their final year as the one that laid the groundwork for a new and improved ASU men's hoops program. For that, we should all thank them and wish them well in whatever directions their lives may lead them. They'll forever be Sun Devils and we're proud of them.

See you all at Wells Fargo Arena on Sunday. The Devils have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Stranger things have happened, right?

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