Anticipation Runs High for Pac-10 Season

School is currently still on winter break, but the proverbial Pac-10 basketball semester starts today and the Sun Devils are carrying some momentum into it. ASU's 10-2 mark is tied for its second-best through a dozen games in the past 27 seasons, and the team has done a near 180 degree turn from last year's 8-22 season. There's much work ahead though, and the Devils are ready to make their mark.

"As soon we got back (home)from Christmas practices have been super intense," said junior forward Jeff Pendergraph, who in his past four games is averaging 17.8 points and 9.8 boards. "We're in the gym from morning time until night time. Lovely…(smile)."

Freshman James Harden, the Pac-10's youngest player, is looking forward to his first season of conference play. The team's 10-2 record hasn't caused him to raise the expectation level of what he expects from himself or the team during league play. "Our expectations have been consistent," he commented. "We know what we have to do and it's up to us to how far we wanna go in the Pac-10."

Pendergraph concurred with Harden, but added that expectations didn't change because they've always been lofty. "Standards here are high," he stated. "We have to keep our standards high, and like James said we can control what we do."

No scoreboard watching was taking place during the non-conference portion of the season. After all, according to ASU's leader the slate is wiped clean when league play begins. "Everything that happened before is kind of irrelevant," said Pendergraph. "Conference (play) comes and everyone is like a brand new team…when Thursday and Saturday comes it's go time."

Nonetheless, the junior doesn't dismiss all that has taken place with the Sun Devils during its non-conference schedule. He did acknowledge that the level of confidence on the team, compared to this time last year, is much higher and not only because of this year's record.

"Last year we didn't really know what was going on," Pendergraph explained. "We had a brand new coach and we were still adjusting, trying to figure things out. The year before, my freshman year, I really didn't know what was going on, I was just happy to travel (smile)."

"I think everyone is a lot more confident. It's not just the veterans. Guys like James and Ty (Abbott) are showing just as much confidence, if not more, than some of the older guys at times. Across the board I think everybody is more ready."

And the Sun Devils better be ready, as they embark on 19 consecutive league games in a conference that has faired well against non-Pac 10 opponents this year and carries a lot of parity and balance. "The Pac-10 right now…half the league is in the top 25 and there are a handful of teams that are knocking on that door," said Arizona State Head Coach Herb Sendek.

The second-year Sun Devil skipper remarked that he's uncertain how his squad will do in the Pac-10 season, and overall gives his team an incomplete grade following its non-conference schedule.

"I think it's just too early to tell," replied Sendek when asked to forecast his team's fortunes in the Pac-10 this year. "We've played some really good games. LSU, Xavier are great wins. We've had some tough days like Illinois and at Nebraska where we haven't played particularly well. We won a couple of games where we didn't play our best like Montana State and Idaho."

Sendek admitted to being more prepared for his second go-around in the Pac-10. However, his knows that grueling times lurk ahead. "The one thing about conference play is that – it's a gauntlet," he noted. "It's 19 straight games against really good teams. It's unforgiving. There's no easy way to get well. You gotta earn everything you get in this league. It's an incredible league."

While at his last coaching stop before ASU, North Carolina State, Sendek was quite aware of the Pac-10's strength. At the same time, he did admit that the conference's perception around the country has improved leaps and bounds in the last two years.

"I don't think that implies that there wasn't great respect for it previously. Let's face it, teams like UCLA, Arizona, Stanford were playing at high level for a long, long time," Sendek commented. "But I think the last two years, as timing would have it on my side (smile), I think there's an awakening, a universal acknowledgement that this league right now is as good as any in the country."

And what is the reason for the league's ascent? Simply put, according to Sendek, is the caliber of players and recruiting classes around the Pac-10. "This league right now is attracting top-shelf players, not just from the West coast," he said. "We have excellent recruiters and the West cost is producing great players. All those things are coming together."

Having impact talented freshmen isn't unique only to the Sun Devils, but seems to be a staple of many of its Pac-10 foes. Currently, the Pac-10 freshman of the year award looks to be a four-horse race between Harden, UCLA's Kevin Love, Arizona's Jerryd Bayless, and USC's O.J. Mayo. The excitement factor that these players bring to the league is undeniable.

"I think there's kind of a trend in college basketball to talk a lot about freshmen," Sendek said. "There's an excitement. The stories have already been written about the sophomores, juniors and seniors and everybody wants a new story. This freshman class, in particular on a national level, is a really strong one."

Sendek indicated that he wasn't overly anxious to see how his team's key freshmen like James Harden and Ty Abbott will perform in their inaugural Pac-10 season. Sendek believes that the squad's non-conference play has adequately prepared them for the rigors of the league that lie ahead. Nonetheless, the ASU Head Coach acknowledged that, "Obviously conference play, is some aspects, gets really ratcheted up."

No player in recent memory has come to ASU with more accolades than Harden. As someone who leads the team in scoring (16.9 ppg) and shooting 57.1% from the field, suffice to say that the McDonald's All-American's play has matched the lofty expectations he brought with him.

The attributes that are most striking to Sendek about the freshman phenom, are ones that you probably wouldn't expect to see from a player of Harden's caliber. "The one thing about James that to me is so amazing is that he's so unselfish, and he's so efficient," Sendek noted. "He doesn't need a lot of shots to score. Some guys score and you look and they have to soak their arm at the end of the game...honestly, I've yet to detect any instance, in any set of circumstances where I said to myself ‘you know that was kind of self centered.' He's so unselfish that it really helps our team and he's just wonderful to coach."

On the other hand, the contributions of another freshman, local Phoenix Desert Vista product Ty Abbott, have been very significant as well to the team's success. Abbott is averaging 16.0 points in his past four games, and already has 33 three-pointers on the year, ninth-best by a freshman in ASU history.

In many regards, the guard's play has been an incredibly huge surprise to the coaching staff. "We knew that Ty was going to be a good player – we'll give ourselves that much credit," said Sendek. "But he's played exceptionally well through his first 12 college basketball games."

Teams usually get better as the season progresses. This is true not only for teams who have freshmen as their star players, like ASU, but also for veteran squads. "You're working everyday and when you make that investment, you can improve," Sendek explained. "If you're the same team in January, February as you were in November, December – you're in trouble. Even if you're a good team in those early months."

And the encouraging news for Arizona State basketball is that by and large they have improved in their last few games, and are entering the Pac-10 season on a high note. The burden of proof is naturally still upon them, but the optimism surrounding the maroon and gold is real and more importantly vital for a squad heavy on newcomers and underclassmen.

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