Xavier Presents Challenge, not Benchmark

Xavier, ASU's next opponent, does not come from a traditional power conference. Yet, in today's extreme parity of college basketball, the term ‘mid-major team' has become obsolete. The Musketeers will present as tough a test as the Sun Devils will see all season. It is a traditional basketball power, currently ranked 17th, and is no different than many of the heavyweights of the Pac-10.

"Their facilities are world class," said Arizona State Head Coach Herb Sendek about Xavier. "Their attendance and following is as good as anyone in the country…they compete year in and year out in the NCAA tournament…going back decades regardless of who sat in the head coach chair there."

That being said, ASU's second-year coach doesn't like the word gauge and the permanent connotation that is associated with it, when talking about the match up with the Musketeers on Saturday. He believes every game is a test and an opportunity to learn and improve. "This Saturday is the next exam, if you will, for our basketball team," he explained. "We know we're work in progress. We know we have a tremendous amount of growth ahead of us. It's a long season."

The home game, which tips-off at 2 pm MT, will be broadcasted by the Fox Sports Network to more than 76 million households. Sendek is hopeful for big crowd at Wells Fargo Arena, but hope that the reasons for the increased attendance aren't just rooted with the visitors from Cincinnati.

"I understand that name schools excite the fans, gets everybody fired up," he noted. "At the same time, we're really asking the Sun Devil nation, the community, the valley, to put their arms around our team – not our opponent…the Sun Devils are playing and those are our guys."

"James Harden could have gone anywhere in the country. He picked us. He deservers great support not because Xavier is in town, but because he's in town. Guys like Christian Polk and Ty Abbott, who are from here; they deserve great support because they are our guys…that's my message to anyone who cares to listen."

The maroon and gold's trademark last season was an effective zone defense. Last year's 76-58 loss to Xavier on the road was the first time that scheme, as well as some other defensive alignments, which according to a joking Sendek "have not been named", has been played extensively at that time.

The Sun Devil skipper said the change in defensive philosophy, was due to the team having: "…(to) do something short of slipping a sixth man onto the court." A year later ASU's defense will be greatly tested, because the Musketeers final scores have shown a trend of resounding victories. "Xavier is playing as well as anyone in the country," Sendek commented. "…They're a veteran team with a senior backcourt. They've been together for some time now. They boast terrific balance. Six players in double figures (scoring). Excellence on both ends of the court…It's gonna be a great challenge for our team."

One thing the visitors aren't known for is a strong presence down low. This could be An opportune time for Jeff Pendergraph and Eric Boateng to wreak havoc in the paint, and offset the advantage Xavier has in the backcourt.

Both players started together in the lineup for just a couple of games, and for the vast majority of the season have been spelling each other. Sendek claimed that he doesn't know if this rotation is a sort-term solution to benefit the team, or merely the rotation one can expect for the rest of the 2007-08 campaign.

"We still have some coming together to accomplish," he said. "We're still working out our identity. It's good in one sense to have some flexibility…as time goes on more of the answers are revealed."

With a minimum of 19 conference games, Sendek naturally yearns for balance in terms of scheduling. Playing in the Pac-10, regarded as one of the best leagues in the nation, can help in post-season aspirations. Nonetheless, the non-conference slate has to be factored in as well, as the team tries to position itself to possibly be part of March Madness.

"Every year dictates particular needs that you have," Sendek remarked. "But we want to schedule so we give ourselves the best opportunity moving forward to gain an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. Obviously in order to do that, you have to play some good people, and you have to win games."

A victory against Xavier can go a long way in being considered the proverbial quality win the NCAA tournament selection committee looks for. The question is how many fans will populate the stands on Saturday to witness this intriguing match up?

With four pro sports in the Phoenix Metropolitan, it's naturally harder to sell college sports than in a traditional college town. However, Sendek points out the population base ASU is drawing from is significantly larger than a college town.

"We can't give ourselves all the traditional reasons of ‘why not?' At this point I refuse to accept that," he said. "I just believe that just a person at a time, with us and our staff doing everything we can, to touch and to love this valley, to be an integral member of this community…that we can't have lines from here down until Mill Avenue."

"Maybe I'm Don Quixote, but that's how I think."

It's up to the Sun Devil fans to prove to Sendek that it indeed can come out in droves for this weekend's game, as well as future contests.

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