Sun Devils Try to End Three Game Skid in L.A.

Bouncing back from a losing streak is tough of a task on itself. Trying to accomplish that feat on the road, against two of the better teams in the Pac-10, certainly doesn't make any of the conference foes envy of ASU this week. Head coach Herb Sendek believes that winning in this league is an undertaking that is difficult no matter what the venue might be.

Arizona State started conference play 4-0, but hasn't won since a double overtime 99-90 victory at Cal on January 17th.

"Tough competition is a constant in our conference right now," Sendek noted. "We are most certainly challenged night in and night out. We have to play at a very high level with very little margin for mishap to be competitive in a given night. We were fortunate to win some early games, games that could have gone either way. The guys made some plays at the end that tilted it our direction, but we still remain a team that really has to be quick and on all cylinders on a given night."

The Sun Devil skipper mentioned that his team's spirits were high this week, and practices have been energetic with a strong focus on improving in all areas. One aspect of the team that is a deficiency now is the scoring balance across the team, and the ASU coach as asked about it.

"I don't know that it is always something that you can correct, sometimes it is what it is," Sendek replied. "At the end of the day it is still basketball, as analytical as you want to get, as much as you want to bring things down you have to put the ball in the basket…through seven games our three-point field goal percentage is under 30 percent and we need to have it better."

Junior forward Jeff Pendergraph stated that the team has gotten away from their philosophy and schemes during their three losses, and placed the blame on himself and his teammates. "I think it's more mental mistakes," he commented. "If you don't want someone to score, he isn't gonna score. If you go there with the mentality that someone isn't gonna catch the ball, and that's what you really want to do, he won't catch the ball. So I think it's all mental, especially on defense."

With this year's apparent offensive improvement of the Sun Devils, it was believed that Jeff Pendergraph would see less double teams this season as opponents would tend to respect ASU's outside shooters. Alas, in the last few games, it seems that the junior is seeing two defenders converge on him with the same frequency as last year's team which was light years behind this year's squad in terms of offensive fire power.

"It's not that much of a surprise," said Pendergraph. "The main thing about the double teams was that they would be gone because Eric (Boateng) and I would be in at the same time and that's not the game plan. This year I started out a lot better than last year and I'm definitely more of an impact player now. And with James (Harden) they know it's not just Jeff anymore. Teams know who the go-to guys are."

"But the offense is flowing a lot better," the forward claimed. "Against Washington State I had just one turnover which is just amazing (smile). Coach said great players do attract two players to guard them and my surprise is that I'm handling it a lot better. Last year was hard and now I'm more patient, I don't rush shots."

The junior added that he noticed that when he scores early and often his teammates start to get on a roll, there's move movement on the offensive end, and that's another reason why opponents are quick to double team and not let him establish his offense in the opening minutes of the game.

"I just have to be patient – games aren't won in the first five minutes," Pendergraph explained. "They can do what they want to do, and we'll make our adjustments. If I have to do what I did last year, get most of my points off rebounds, I'll do it. If guys focus so hard on me not getting the ball, I'll have to go ahead and get myself. I don't mind having assists. One assist is worth two points. I'll take that."

In any college sport, there's always the talk towards the middle of the season of the team's freshmen hitting the proverbial ‘wall'. Sendek didn't deny the grueling aspect of the basketball season, but claims that fatigue can set on any player regardless of experience.

"It's a tremendous mental and physical marathon," remarked Sendek. "It can be a grind and that's part of the process, the endurance aspect most certainly for young guys but also for everybody. It's day in day out, next game, two games this week, three games the next week…basketball is just a long season, that's part of the challenges, the endurance component of it."

Pendergraph dismissed that popular theory all together.

"I never see how it would be a ‘wall', especially for guys like Ty (Abbott) who's been doing a lot of shooting lately and his shot hasn't been falling as much as he wanted. I'm trying to stay away from ‘the wall' thing because these guys have been playing so well lately, playing in these overtime games," he said, "it wouldn't make sense to me to play well in an overtime game and a couple nights later you play and you suddenly have a ‘wall.' A ‘wall' would be not (playing well) all season. That's a ‘wall.' Ty and all those guys hitting shots are a function of how me and James get it going. If me and James are taken out of everything that affects everybody."

Speaking of Harden, the accolades continue to pour in for the freshman with the latest being named one of 30 players on the Wooden Award watch list. "Anytime one of our players gets recognized we are happy for that and we celebrate that," Sendek commented. "Right now we are very team centered and trying to prepare for our next game. James has had a good start and it is nice to see him receive recognition for that."

The guard was clearly affected by his groin injury last Thursday in a loss to Washington, but was noticeably better in Saturday's loss against Washington State. "I thought yesterday (Monday) he probably looked as good as he had since the injury," Sendek noted. "Yesterday it was back to true form. I didn't notice any deficit yesterday. I think he is still a little bit sore but yesterday it seemed like he had turned the corner in terms of his movement."

The impact Harden has on the offense is quite clear and he's by far the focal point of the ASU offense. Nonetheless, Pendergraph contends that sometimes the team relies too heavily on the freshman phenom, which makes their offense stagnant.

"We'll be running our offense and all of a sudden there's ten seconds left and we're like ‘where's James at?' We have to get away from that. We can't relay for everything to come on James when there's one second left. We need to run our stuff."

With the struggles of Eric Boateng in the last few games, Sendek was asked about the ability of freshman Kraidon Woods to help the team. "He is getting better and you never know for certain when a guy is going to have his break through," Sendek replied. "You simply encourage them to keep working, having a great attitude, which he most certainly is doing."

Woods is one player that could possibly help the team in another area of need: rebounding. "In our Pac-10 play we are being out rebounded by a margin of 2.4 per game, which at least is relatively neutral," Sendek stated. "You take away the collapse against Stanford on the backboard, given were we are size wise we are in the mix. But going up against UCLA we will have a tremendous challenge on the backboard. That I just the strength of their team, they have great size and athleticism, they are tough and they go get the ball."

Simply put, Pendergraph stated that he and his teammates have to "toughen it up" in order to do a better job on the boards. "We know we're little and smaller than anybody else in there and we have to go in there with the feeling that everybody on our team in 6-10 with a 40 inch vertical and can rebound their butts off. Then we're gonna rebound like we're supposed to."

"The last few game guys are getting more physical with us. They're not calling these little ticky-tack fouls and guys are getting offensive rebounds five feet away from the basket. We just have to step up our toughness, and not let people take it to us but take it to them."

Granted, losing three games in a row will never make a team feel good about itself, even in light some improbable early success. Nonetheless, ASU is a team that has been picked near the cellar of the conference and is likely to not shed anytime soon the underdog tag that pundits have labeled them with. Even now with the lion share of the schedule behind them, the maroon and gold still consider the underdog stamp as rallying cry.

"When Coach Sendek and I came from the (Pac-10 Media Day) we told the team that regardless of all the new people we have, our recruiting class…they still picked us to finish in ninth place," said Pendergraph. "We know we're not a ninth place team. If just do what we do, we're not gonna finish in ninth place. We just have to remember that."

"Yeah we were #24 (in the AP Poll) and that's nice, but we were still picked to finish ninth. We can't forget that and I think that will bring a lot of things back."

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