Washington Trip Presents Unique Challenges

Pullman, Wash. this time of year is hardly a desirable tourist destination. Furthermore, many would agree that playing at the Washington schools, just as the Sun Devils are this week, offers challenges that other Pac-10 schools don't present to visitors.

"In terms of travel it's the most difficult," said Arizona State Head Coach Herb Sendek about the road trip to the Evergreen State schools. "It's not an easy journey. It's difficult to get to and unlike the other twins in our league; Washington State and Washington aren't close together so you have travel (long distances) between the games. Whereas UCLA and USC are right there, ourselves and Arizona are an easy bus ride away."

Forward Jeff Pendergraph admits that the Cougars have a serious home court advantage due to the traveling schedule. The team will arrive at Spokane on Wednesday afternoon and will drive over two hours until they arrive at their destination.

"It's in the middle of nowhere," said the junior. "There's no city, there's nothing there…you drive for three hours and then you're suddenly at the gym. Where is everything? There's just snow everywhere. That's tough." He added that the players catching up on their sleep is probably the only positive associated with the long ride to Pullman.

Fighting the non-basketball elements aside, the Sun Devils realize that they have a mighty task on their hands, as they try to avenge a heartbreaking 56-55 loss in Tempe to the Cougars. "The last six games are important," Pendergraph commented. "It's almost like we have to get all of them if want any chance to do anything."

One thing ASU will have to avoid is letting Washington State go on a tear, like the 18-0 run the Cougars had over two halves in the first meeting between the teams. "We have to change that," said Guard James Harden about the team's tendency to dig themselves a big hole. "We have to have teams try to make a run at us and have their backs against the wall instead of us. I guess that's the learning experience we're having as a young group – just maturing and coming together."

The freshman admitted that he thought the Pac-10 was a breeze as ASU started off with a 4-0 record. "Is this really the Pac-10?" Harden recalled asking himself at the time. "Everything was going so well and then we're in a slump so it was tough. We just have to keep going, listen to all the details the coach gives us…just being more focused than ever."

Adjusting to defenses, and keeping a high level of energy up from game to game, are some other goals Harden believes the maroon and gold should strive for. The consensus culprit to the team's 76-73 recent loss to Cal was a lack of energy.

Pendergraph puts the responsibility for that deficiency squarely on the shoulders of the players. "We have to have energy and keep it going," he stated. "We can't just have spurts of energy, because that's when other teams start smelling blood and make runs. We're down 12 with like two minutes left, and we start playing catch up. The game goes to the wire, instead of us just having a good game."

"If we had our energy going we'd be up by 20 and not down by one," Pendergraph noted about the close loss to the Cougars.

"It's been a trademark of our team to give up significant runs, and then in the most unlikely of circumstances we seem to have some (runs) of our own," said Sendek. "In some instances we've had more than nine lives and been able to overcome ourselves at times."

In the Cal game Pendergraph mustered just three points, yet he didn't give credit to the Bears defense for taking him out of the game. "I took myself out of the game. I started to think negative, getting down on myself and that totally took me out of the game," he claimed. "I'm worried about fouls, there are just a bunch of things…they didn't do anything different than what Arizona and Stanford did."

Harden scored 11 last Saturday, and was happy for his teammate Ty Abbott who broke out of his offensive funk in a big way with a 30-point effort. "He shot the ball real well. He needs to keep getting his confidence back and keep producing these last six games in the Pac-10," said Harden, "and we all need to step it up. Me and Jeff as leaders and the rest of the guys need to contribute and we'll be fine."

The freshman, who's the leading scorer on the team, was ironically not part of the barrage of points, 23 in all, that ASU registered in last two minutes of the Cal came as they mounted one last comeback. Sendek called it a "flurry" that ultimately was much too little, much too late and doesn't really produce a positive to build on.

"I don't take away a lot regarding that. That to me was relatively unimportant," Sendek commented. "There were many other things that stuck with us beyond the flurry of threes in the end that we hit. Having said that we did make it interesting." He added that the only positive that can be taken from that contest is if the team has learned from their experience last Saturday.

Much has been said and written this season over the remarkable strength of the Pac-10 conference this season. Case in point, the Cougars were losers four out of five games, with their lone win coming in Tempe in a tight fashion. At the time, the Cougars were ranked 6th in the country.

"So if a Top 10 team can go through a stretch like that, it's speaks to the tremendous strength of this conference," Sendek explained. "Let alone a team like ourselves who's trying to ascend, fighting, scratching and clawing to get one rung up higher on the ladder."

One of Sendek's North Carolina State teams made it to the NCAA tournament from the ACC conference, despite being under .500 in league play. That event is par for the course in the arguably the toughest conference in the nation year in and year out. On the other hand, the Pac-10 may be entering uncharted waters this year possibly sending a 9-9 team to the Big Dance.

"I wouldn't be surprised at all, given the strength of the league. I'd be surprised if 9-9 didn't make it," Sendek remarked. "But once again it's all relative – who wins conference tournaments…how do you compare a 9-9 from one league to a 10-6 from another league? In our league everybody plays each other twice. Some other leagues you may play someone once at home. As conferences have expanded, some play a complete round robin and others don't. Some play 16 (conference) games, some play 18 games."

All the Sun Devils can do is obviously tack on more victories to the 16 total they already have, knowing obviously that the more wins they accumulate the better of a chance they have to be a shoe-in for the NCAA tournament instead of holding their breath on Selection Sunday on March 16th.

"I can't even fathom how the NCAA committee, at this point, can even begin to discern and sort it out," said Sendek. "The way college basketball has evolved, I can't even imagine once you get beyond the obvious teams and the automatic bids, how you discern the next 50 teams are?…it's so hard." He added that he thought that the RPI index is just small piece of the equation and not a uniform measuring stick to all the teams across the nation and their claims of being a part of March Madness.

Pendergraph also believes a 9-9 Pac-10 mark would punch ASU's ticket to the dance. Nonetheless, he knows that sneaking into the tournament with an even conference record, is likely to produce an unfavorable match up with one of college basketball's heavyweights. Thus, the forward doesn't want to arrive at the tournament just to be bounced in the first round.

"I want to at least and play and enjoy the experience," he said.

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