Cohesiveness Should Aid Young Sun Devils

Head Coach Herb Sendek and his Arizona State Sun Devils are about to embark on the second year of his tenure with high hopes and endless optimism. During the team's Media Day Sendek emphasized that his players have great character on and off the court and that the squad has a truly tight-knit family like atmosphere even after a struggling 8-22 2006-07 campaign.

Sendek noted that this season is a lot more exciting because there is a familiarity that was missing last year when he arrived on campus. The team's late season improvements truly created a buzz and have helped build momentum that has continued into this season. Nonetheless, ASU's second-year head coach realizes that his team needs to work hard and to make improvements at practice everyday.

Many games in the later part of last season, ended with close loses and upsets over then 16th ranked USC at home and a road victory at Cal. Both those wins and even the razor thin defeats gave reason to believe that much better results are waiting on the horizon for the maroon and gold.

With a more athletic cast, the Sun Devils will spread out of the offense and pick up the tempo to utilize their talented shooters. Their stifling defense, that became a headache for its opponents during Pc-10 play, is only going to improve.

"I think our offense will be played at a quicker pace," he said. "There were many games last year, if not almost all of them, that we just tried to keep it tight to put ourselves in a position down the stretch to have a better chance of banking one in from half-court."

In order to achieve notable improvement, Sendek realizes that his upperclassmen, Junior F Jeff Pendergraph and Senior G Antwi Atuahene, have to step up and embrace roles as leaders and mentors for a very young team.

The inexperience of this team is certainly striking, as Atuahene is the lone senior on the squad that features six newcomers. Pendergraph and Atuahene know they have a tough task at hand but with hard work and confidence, this team can make great strides. "Our coaching staff demands us to play tough," said Atuahene, "So young guys, old guys – we're all gonna leave it on the floor every game." The senior added that the team spent every spare moment off the court during the summer with each other, gaining invaluable familiarity.

Pendergraph added: "We're starting from scratch with a lot of new faces, but we also have some carryover from last year. It's my job as a leader to make sure everyone is on the same page, so you won't tell who's on the floor is a freshman and who's a veteran. I'm really excited to get it going."

Although the team is notably young, Sendek won't use that excuse as a crutch throughout the season. He knows these players are exceptionally skilled and they are going to be thrown right into the mix when the regular season opens in the Maui Invitational on November 19 against Illinois. "It's going to be a baptism by fire for these kids but I believe they will be up to the challenge," said Sendek.

Speaking of newcomers, the biggest newcomer, figuratively and literally, is Duke transfer C Eric Boateng. The former McDonald's All-American sat out last season after playing sparingly at Duke in 2005 and made an immediate impact last season albeit not in games, but in every other facet that the coaches have asked of. While he has plenty of talent and a frame that coaches and fans would drool ever, Sendek believes Boateng has already done much more for the program than he may realize.

"I think Eric has done a terrific job transforming his body. If any of you recall what he looked like, perhaps the first time you saw him in practice here last year, and then had a glimpse of him today, I don't think you could help but notice how he's almost a different person physically," Sendek noted. "Eric immediately helped us when he committed, because I think he gave us instant credibility on a national level in terms of recruiting. Then even last year, when he wasn't in games, he added great value to our program because of his character quotient, because of his leadership skills, and because of the kind of person he was, not to mention he made our practices better with his presence and competitiveness."

Pendergraph doesn't seem to be concerned any possible chemistry issues with his fellow big man teammate. "It will be just fine. Once we're running down the court together, instead of playing against each other, we'll be fine. We're gonna feed of each other like it's nothing. Him and are interchangeable. Sometimes I'll play the 5 spot and sometimes he will. We both got both of those positions down and know what to do. It's good that we now have other options to play at the post."

The other newcomers are made up of five highly touted freshmen that were regarded as a top-15 recruiting class by many college basketball analysts. The gem of the bunch is McDonald's All-American G James Harden, a smooth-shooting lefty out of Southern California.

Sendek raved about Harden's special combination of humility and confidence that makes him so unique. "He understands that is important to stay hungry all the time and to be confident in not only his ability but his teammate's abilities," stated Sendek. "He's a very good shooter. I think we have some other guys who have improved their shooting, and we've recruited some other guys, in addition to James, who can shoot the ball well. Let's face it, that's an important part of the game. It's still, despite any effort to make it more complicated, the one thing we get points for. You've got to shoot, and all that other stuff is great, but you've got to put the ball in the basket."

Another exciting freshman is PG Jamelle McMillan out of Seattle and son of former NBA All-Star and current Portland Trailblazers coach, Nate McMillan. While his talent alone is remarkable, his knowledge of the game is what Sendek really believes makes him special.

"I have great confidence in Jamelle. He knows the game exceptionally well, notwithstanding what it says on his birth certificate," said Sendek. He knows it, and what he doesn't know or what he hasn't experienced yet, he'll pick up quickly because he's really smart and he really pays attention to detail, and he really cares. So I think he starts ahead of the curve based on his background, and I think whatever he's still to experience, he'll learn quickly, once again, just because of the kind of person he is and the gifts that he possesses."

The Sun Devils optimism isn't completely unfounded. Although last year's record isn't fun to harp on, there is reason to believe that a little more improvement could go a long way in moving up the Pac-10 standings. Twelve of the 22 losses were by six points or less and with more experience and fresh new talent all across the board; it is easy to imagine those close losses turning into wins this season.

While it would be easy to balk at such high hopes, especially with more than half of the roster being short of experience, Sendek and his Sun Devils have created an excitement for college basketball in the Valley of the Sun that has long been missing.

"We have a group of returners who must embrace and lead a relatively large set of newcomers. The new guys have to be prepared to hit the floor running and be baptized with fire, yet at the same time, listen to the advice and wisdom of those their senior. At no time can we become two teams wearing the same uniform, returners and newcomers. We're all Sun Devils."

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