Sendek, Players Keep Focus Amid Tourney Talk

"One game at a time". "Control our own destiny". Those aren't just worn out clichés but also the mindset of the Sun Devils these days. With mock brackets popping up with dizzying frequency, it's hard for the maroon and gold faithful not to engage in NCAA tournament talk. However the team and its coach continue and exhibit a pragmatic demeanor that may just turn speculation into reality.

"I personally do not invest a lot of time and energy there," said Arizona State head coach Herb Sendek on whether he ponders the chances of his squad being part of March Madness. "That kind of talk, it seems now, begins at Thanksgiving. Don't we have the first brackets that come out at Thanksgiving? ‘This non-conference game is do or die', we have been going through that in one way or another all through the season. That is good because it creates interest in college basketball. It is fun to talk about. It is exciting. As for someone like myself I will be much better served trying to figure out what we need to do on Thursday (against UCLA)."

Guard James Harden stated that it is "too much" for him to follow the RPI rankings and all the various tournament projections. Nonetheless, he does admit that "sometimes" he does think about ASU's chances at post-season play, but also acknowledged the fact that the coaching staff emphasizes what lies ahead of the team right here and right now.

"Coach Sendek emphasizes one game at a time," said ASU's leading scorer. "In order to make the tournament you gotta win games and we have four games left. We just have to take it one step at a time and play our hearts out every single game."

Point guard Derek Glasser noted that it's not like he and his teammates are programmed robots that are prohibited from entertaining post-season thoughts. It is simply the squad's frame of mind.

"They (ASU coaches) really harp on ‘one game at a time' and have us focused on UCLA," said Glasser. "We really control on our destiny. We lose – it's on us if we don't get in. We know we have to win to get in and if we just keep winning hopefully everything we fall into place."

It would be hardly be an exaggeration to call the Sun Devils' 77-63 win against Washington the most complete game ASU had played this season. "We felt good about the way we played against Washington, but we face an enormous challenge on Thursday night," Sendek noted. "We have already played this team once. We were just talking down the hall that I think at one point (during the UCLA game) we were down 100-2."

OK, so it wasn't quite the score the Sun Devil skipper was lamenting about, but an 84-51 loss to the Bruins is easily the worst conference defeat ASU has suffered in this current campaign. Sendek mentioned that the Bruins' transition baskets cannot qualify as the main culprit for the final score that night.

"It would be kind to limit it to any one thing," said Sendek. "It was an avalanche that hit us. We contributed to it despite UCLA's greatness. We made sure that we took out our chisels and made sure that we hit a few rocks ourselves to increase the flow of the avalanche. We more then helped them along, not that they needed it."

"They really jumped on us early and gave it to us," Glasser recalled, "but I think we're a better team than we showed at UCLA. We were down 30 in the first half and it was hard for us to come back." Glasser added that slowing down the tempo against the Bruins can undoubtedly aid any chances the maroon and gold have to come away with a victory.

Harden who growing up in the Los Angeles area watched the hometown Bruins several times, doesn't necessarily classify Thursday's contest as a special game. According to him it's just one game that he and the team need to win. "We need to be ready to play," the freshman stated. "They put their foot down and showed us what a really good, experienced team is all about. We have to come out ready, we're at home…come out with togetherness and play hard…we have to play a great game and I think we're ready to do it too."

In a reply to a question Glasser agreed that in the Washington win, the team showed more emotion than usual and didn't wait for the coaching staff to fire them up before and during the contest. "We're starting to hold ourselves accountable," he admitted. "That's only gonna help us out."

On a personal level Glasser feels the responsibility to be more aggressive and productive every game. Consequently, the sophomore's assist to turnover ratio ranks second in the league and he's among the Pac-10 leaders in total assists. Aside from being the proverbial "a year older, a year wiser" player, Glasser believes that the higher caliber of team offense is unquestionably aiding his performance compared to last season.

"I wasn't playing in the beginning of the year super aggressive so the turnovers weren't gonna be there that much," Glasser stated. "We definitely have more weapons than we had last year. James (Harden) will get you four assists that you wouldn't have gotten last year (laughs)."

Speaking of Harden, his formidable defensive skills have led him to a second-best ranking among Pac-10 players in the steals category. During any given game assistant coaches and team managers keep various stats, and the data has shown that Harden is pacing the team in overall defensive touches – labeled deflections.

"There are five categories within the heading of deflections," Sendek explained. "A block shot, a steal so in other words I may get a deflection and you pick up the ball or intercept it, that's a steal so on the same play we actually had two deflections, a recovery saving a ball from going out of bounds or getting a loose ball. Between deflections, steals, recoveries, blocked shots and tips from behind (when you tip the ball from behind on a dribble or transition), those are the five subcategories to deflections. James gets his hands on a lot of balls, he has good instincts, and he has long arms so he is good at that."

While James Harden is ASU's most consistent player thus far in the season, Rihards Kuksiks has been blossoming in a big way, during the last four games for the Devils.

"There is an adjustment factor for any freshmen, let alone someone who is from Latvia, a long way from home," Sendek explained. "It has helped a great deal to at least get assimilated to some measure through your high school experience. I put myself in his shoes or other players that I have coached from other countries, I think back to when I was 18 years old and I don't know if I could have done that. I have great admiration and respect for the courage it takes to do that."

"He also did not have the advantage of being here this summer like the rest of our freshmen did so his first day here was mid-August. It takes some time to get your bearings and learn the ropes a little bit."

In the last four contests Kuksiks is averaging 11.0 ppg and 25 minutes per game. You can count Harden as someone who's appreciative of his fellow freshman's efforts on offense which do take some of the scoring burden off of him.

"He plays the 4 and can shoot the ball real well," Harden stated. "He has 6-8, 6-9 guys guarding him and it's a great match-up for him. His height can't really get exploited because of our zone – we all step up together as a team. He gained a lot of confidence from the beginning of the year."

The week's games against UCLA, and USC on Saturday, could likely mark the last time senior Antwi Atuahene will don the maroon and gold at Wells Fargo Arena. Even though he usually plays sparingly, Sendek recognizes his contributions – especially off the court. "Antwi is a young man with tremendous energy," said Sendek. "He talks a mile a minute and he is by far the funniest guy on our team. He has a great personality, has given us tremendous leadership this year, as well as provided that constant infusion of energy that you need as you go through the season. I think our guys identify him as one of their key leaders."

Recognition is also what the Sun Devils seek from the NCAA committee, should they win at least two of their next five games (including at least one game in the Pac-10 tournament). What would the ASU coach and his players want that group to notice about their team that could help them earn an invitation to the big dance?

"The best thing about our team is the guys," Sendek replied. "The kind of people that we have on our team are easy to like, to cheer for and pull for. I think in a lot of ways they represent what is good about what we do every day. To me that is easily the most engaging and best part of our team."

"We're a great team and they should watch us," said Harden. "We have a great group of guys that loves to compete and win. Once all of us get that mindset that we can do anything that it takes to win, people will recognize us more."

Glasser hopes that the East Coast pundits on the committee, who're used to seeing the traditional "hard-nose man-to-man defense" in that region of the country, will appreciate ASU's trademark zone defense.

"We showed that we can play with teams like Stanford and Xavier, and when we are at our best we are as good as anyone that we played so far," said Glasser. "We just had problems maintaining that…but we're just starting to come together more and more as a team. I think that's what's gonna help us."

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