Sendek Pleased with Program's Improvement

One can describe the Sun Devils' 2006-07 campaign as a rough but necessary season. Head Coach Herb Sendek doesn't perceive his first year in Tempe as his most trying coaching experience ever, and sees positives the maroon and gold can build on. In this exclusive Devils Digest interview, we sat down with Sendek to discuss the season that was, as well as what lies ahead for ASU basketball.

"I think this season was a great learning experience," sated first-year head coach Herb Sendek. "It certainly provided us opportunity to get better. I am in retrospect very pleased with the improvement our guys have showed from October into March."

The Sun Devil skipper admitted that a season record of 8-22, was the first time he ever had a season marked with such a low ratio of wins to loses. Again, he doesn't consider his inaugural season in Tempe as his most taxing one in his 13 years of head coaching. "Every season packages its own unique challenges and adversities," he remarked. "This season just had its own unique flavor to it."

Sendek stated that it would have been impossible to predict when he first arrived in the valley, almost one year to date, how his journey in Tempe will unfold. "Before our season even began, we had two things where as I sat with (Arizona State's Vice President of Athletics) Lisa Love talking, there would be no way of knowing. Namely Kevin Kruger and Bryson Krueger wouldn't be on the team – our two leading three-point shooters from the year before and two seniors." He added that looking back he wasn't pleasantly or horribly surprised by what he encountered along the way.

One remarkable staple of the 2006-07 season was the levelheaded manner in which the ASU players conducted themselves. Through out the year, Sendek mentioned how members of the team weren't "dragging their chin on the ground" after losses or "skipping through the hallway" after a rare win. Ultimately, the players' behavior was a way of being for them. "We stayed very task oriented and to their credit they didn't need a lot of help with that," Sendek noted. "They were very much resilient on their own without a great deal or need for us to help them with that, which is to their credit."

Historically, Sendek has been disciple of employing a stifling man-to-man defense. Circumstances dictated a switch to a zone scheme that routinely baffled teams. "It was a very positive evolution for our program. It started as something that we thought we needed because of match-ups and evolved into maybe the single greatest strength of our team," said Sendek. "We became an excellent defensive squad no matter who we were playing and we really learned about the defense as the season went. It evolved and we found new things that we could make it better. We walk away from this experience with this (zone) defense and I think we maybe have helped ourselves. We certainly have another tool we previously didn't have. " Naturally, with the success this scheme has produced the ASU coach didn't rule out the possibility of continuing to utilize it this upcoming season.

If that zone defense will again be the trademark of the Sun Devils in the upcoming season, it will be carried out by a squad that should be significantly better than the one that ended the season earlier this month. Notwithstanding a season where ASU finished last in its conference, the Devils welcome a 2007 recruiting class which Scout.com tabbed as the 15th best in the country.

"I think given the sum total of our circumstances, our starting point…we have recruited exceptionally well," commented Sendek. "I couldn't be more pleased with our staff, our players and all the other members of our administration and faculty in this endeavor. It really has been a team effort…recruiting is always challenging and competitive no matter where you're at. Everybody wants the best players and by and large sometimes the same players."

With the infusion of all its heralded newcomers, the Sun Devil nation's expectations for the near future are sky-high, and Sendek is delighted with that notion. "At the same time, I think in all fairness we have to give these newcomers a chance to get their feet on the ground, recognize the fact that there are going to be 18-year old freshmen…but it's good that we have players coming in with good reputations into our program."

The accolades bestowed on McDonald's All-American and incoming freshman guard James Harden are well-documented. Nonetheless, according to his future head coach expectations regarding his contributions in his first year of college basketball should probably be tempered to some extent. "There's a transition no matter how talented you are," explained Sendek. "There's obviously a transition between the high school game and playing in a power conference as the Pac-10. Talent aside, a young man has to go through a learning process and for some it's a steeper incline than it is for others."

Harden, isn't the only McDonald's All-American that will don the maroon and gold in the fall. Center Eric Boateng, who achieved that honor in 2005 and signed with Duke, will join the ranks following a season where he had to sit out following his transfer from Duke University.

"We're really excited that Eric is with us. He added value to our program immediately when he committed," stated Sendek. "I think it sent a lighting rod across the country, because he could have gone to any school. He helped us in practice, gave us another voice of leadership and continued to grow in his role. He will help our team immensely as we move forward."

Boateng will join Jeff Pendergraph, one of the conference's elite power forwards to from what should be one of the best front courts in the Pac-10. The Sun Devils don't have experienced backups to that tandem, but one should probably expect Boateng and Pendergraph to be on the floor together for long periods of time each game. "If we're going to make a significant stride, we need Jeff and Eric both to be outstanding for us," explained Sendek. "We're counting on both of those guys to be terrific players for our basketball team. It's exciting to anticipate them working together along with the other members of our team."

The Pac-10 has been labeled in the past, albeit mostly by media located west of the Mississippi as a finesse conference. Don't count Sendek, who prior to this year head coached only in conferences located in that region of the country, as one of those basketball pundits who know realizes that the style of basketball played in ASU's conference was incorrectly stereotyped.

"You look at a team like UCLA and there's nothing finesse about them," said Sendek. "I knew coming in that it was great a great conference. I never committed that transgression of devaluing the Pac-10. It has terrific players, future NBA players, and coaches with great track record. I can't be held accountable for devaluing it (smile)."

Laid-back fans is probably another trait unfairly attached to the Pac-10, and Sendek knows all too well about that misconception. He witnessed at Wells Fargo Arena swell in numbers and intensity as the conference slate progressed. He also saw several ASU students form the famous and boisterous ‘Herbivore' fan group. While he doesn't own any of the ‘Herbivore' shirts bearing his mug shot ("I don't have one myself, but I had to get some for friends and other folks."), he's very excited of the fan support his team has enjoyed despite its frustrating season. "It was really an amazing phenomenon," he admitted. "As I said through out the season, you could feel the tremor getting larger and larger. I thought our students were terrific. The community really embraced us and it's exciting to think of the possibilities as we grow together."

ASU's basketball-only practice facility is closer to becoming reality than it has ever been, and is scheduled to break ground in a few months. Obviously, this is another topic that excites Sendek as he looks towards the future. "It's absolutely vital to the well-being of our student-athletes, so they have place where they can practice and train," he said. "It's a place that we can demonstrate on the recruiting trail that basketball is important here. It's certainly addresses the daily operations and the well-being of our student-athletes."

We conducted our interview on the eve of the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. Even though Sendek stated that he and his staff pick up valuable things by watching the best teams in college basketball, as well as the teams that comprise the Pac-10, he contended that "We have our own style that's important to us. We have our own players that are dear to us. I think it's important that we wrap our arms around who we are." He does believe that there are two traits that every successful team possesses. "I would simply say that it's important to have balance. The best teams are good on offense, but also good on defense. They can play different styles effectively. Balance and I would say consistency are the trademarks of very successful teams."

No one can guarantee what the immediate future holds for ASU basketball, and Sendek is very mindful of what lies ahead for the program. "It's imperative to keep our head to the grindstone and continue to seize every opportunity to get better and better and better," he said. "Nobody, and I mean nobody, is more aware of the great deal of work we have to do. We have to be extremely diligent and continue to move forward on a broad base front."

Sendek's realistic outlook is by no means a reflection of any possible toll that this past season took on him. One can say that ASU's head coach believes that when life hands you lemons, you should just proceed and make lemonade out of them.

"I had a good opportunity professionally to continue and grow as a coach," he said. "I learned some things, and if I was in a different set of circumstances those things may have not presented themselves. I enjoyed the journey with this group of guys and I'm happy I had the opportunity to coach them. It still was a season that had much good in it."

And by all accounts the best is yet to come in future seasons.

Note: Special thanks to Eric Menkhus and Jack Leary who helped with interview questions for this article.

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