A Sweeping Turning Point?

Going into today's game in Tucson, after a 4-0 start, ASU lost five straight while Arizona won 4 of its last 5. Pundits sarcastically wondered if it was all back to normal. In other words, ASU would struggle as expected this season while the Wildcats would once again ascend to the top of the Pac-10. The maroon and gold were more than happy to buck the trend as they won 59-54 at their rival.

"I was in the mindset that we just weren't going to lose," said Pendergraph, "I kept telling my teammates that we weren't going to lose. I said it all the time. I said it everywhere. They probably heard me saying last night in their dreams."

And did the junior ever deliver. As Arizona State (15-7, 5-5 Pac-10) fell behind by 16 points in the first half, and with a flu-ridden James Harden, Pendergraph took matters into his own hands. The forward scored 20 points in the opening stanza and helped his team creep back into the game trailing Arizona (15-8, 5-5) just 32-31.

Ultimately that was just a prelude for a memorable afternoon for the visitors from Tempe.

ASU's trademark zone defense baffled Arizona in the second half, as the Devils went on a crushing 18-6 run en route to their first win in the Tucson, as well as a series sweep since 1995.

So the confidence has returned to the maroon and gold, but can they sustain their success? On the surface, it appeared that ASU couldn't handle prosperity losing five consecutive games after a 4-0 start. The reality is that Harden's injured groin and a mini-slump by Jeff Pendergraph severely hampered their offense during that stretch. There was no, as head coach Herb Sendek would call it, "fat rat" syndrome. It was rather a team that couldn't replace its two vital offensive weapons who were struggling.

With the Pac-10 having the second-best conference RPI, some believe that a 9-9 record in league play should be enough to qualify for the NCAA tournament. ASU could well be one of those teams sporting that mark. However getting to that record will be anything but a breeze.

The Sun Devils host the Bay Area schools this week. A sweep may be unlikely, but would naturally be a monumental step towards at least breaking even in the conference. Not only would two wins bring ASU close to the proverbial magical ninth victory, but a win over top-10 Stanford would go a long way to improve ASU's RPI and notch another quality win that may end up impressing the NCAA selection committee enough for an invite.

Even a split this week doesn't diminish ASU's chances, but does make it imperative to earn a split at the Washington schools on the road the following week. The road games at Pullman and Seattle could prove to be as tough as any Pac-10 road game this season, but with ASU already winning two conference games on the road one cannot count them out.

A home series with the Los Angeles schools and a road trip to the Oregon schools conclude the regular season. Even if ASU was 8-10 following those last four games, two wins in the Pac-10 tournament can still aid their NCAA tournament cause. The selection committee has usually looked favorably on teams finishing strong, and again with the conference being as formidable as it is there's a good chance that one or even two victories in the league tournament would be invaluable late season quality wins.

Going into the 2007-08 campaign, the consensus among Sun Devil fans seemed to be that the NIT is the more realistic post-season aspiration. A 4-0 start had the maroon and gold faithful talking NCAA tournament, but some reverted back the NIT talk after five straight losses.

The win over Arizona has pushed the pendulum back to dreams of March Madness, but obviously at least three more pre-Pac 10 tournament wins are needed for that rhetoric to be truly relevant.

One thing is for certain, if ASU does go dancing next month, one should point to this historic afternoon in Tucson as the primary culprit. The Sun Devils were at a crossroads prior to their game against Arizona, and today's victory could have them heading a road less traveled for this program – an NCAA tournament appearance.

That wouldn't be too shabby for a so-called junior college program, now would it?

Sun Devil Source Top Stories