Teams Past the Frustration of Tourney Snub

When the topic of teams left out of the NCAA Tournament came up on Selection Sunday, Arizona State and Florida were highlighted. The Sun Devils were the consensus victim of the infamous RPI and their exclusion drew the ire of many college basketball pundits. The reigning champion Gators, who finished the regular season with four consecutive losses, were denied a chance to defend their title.

Nonetheless, frustration turned into motivation, as both Arizona State and Florida each began the NIT tournament with two convincing home wins. Tuesday night in Tempe, both square of for the right to qualify for the tournament's Final Four played at the storied Madison Square Garden in New York City.

Gators Head Coach Billy Donovan sent a strong message to his young team, who has only one upperclassmen key contributor in Walter Hodge. Following Selection Sunday he locked out the team from their practice facility as they began preparations for their NIT opener, naturally conveying his deep dissatisfaction with his squad's attitude of perceived entitlement.

"Sometimes when you're dealing with young people that walk into a situation of back-to-back national championships," Donovan explained, "there's a little bit of a disposition of ‘I'm at Florida and we're just gonna win. These guys did it then and now it's my turn.' I think they're starting to understand what really goes into winning at this level."

"This (the game against ASU) is the game that is hopefully gonna make our team better…coming out of the SEC tournament we've had some good practices and they have responded and tried to get better and address the things we need to get better at."

"That was probably the unfortunate thing for some of these guys walking in. They didn't know what to expect, they didn't know how all this success happened. They didn't understand a lot of the work that has been placed in from the players before them. It's not their fault; it's just a process that they have to go through."

Florida features a high octane offense which will encounter ASU's zone defense, which at times have baffled its opponents. "I think Herb (Sendek) does a great job and is a tremendous defensive coach," said Donovan. "He played great defense man-to-man and he plays great defense with the zone. The one thing about it is that what they do every single day. The kids and the coaching staff know it better than anything else because that's all they do."

"I think as college coaches you can be focused on a lot of different things and just be OK at a few. They've elected to be great in their zone and they do a great job. It's been two years now and I'm sure for a lot of the kids coming back there's a level of experience, understanding and the ability to teach some of these young guys."

"I don't look at it so much as just a zone – I look at them as one of the better defensive teams in the country."

Florida's defense will have to contend with Sun Devil guard James Harden, a player that has earned a great deal of respect from the Florida Head Coach.

"I think he's terrific. You look at the 18 points (per game) that he gets but to me it's a lot deeper than that," Donovan stated. "I love the way he plays, because he plays the right way. He plays unselfishly, finds open men, makes the extra pass. I think Herb's offensive system is a lot based on player movement, ball movement and reading situations. In order for that to be effective, you have to have a guy that's you're leading scorer like Harden who can really flourish, understanding the importance of the system and making everyone around him better."

Donovan speaks of ASU's Head Coach Herb Sendek and his system not only as an admirer from afar, but as someone with intimate knowledge of the Sun Devil skipper's philosophies. Sendek was a Graduate Assistant during Donovan's last two years as a player at Providence. Between 1989-93 both served under Rick Pitino as part of the coaching staff at Kentucky.

"Billy is a great guy and we've been blessed to be together for a lot of years," said Sendek, "and experienced many things together. We obviously haven't gotten out of our way to schedule each other over the years and this one just happened as the brackets put us together."

Sendek has been very impressed with the way Florida has been playing as of late. He pointed out that at one point the Gators were 18-3 on the year (they are currently 23-11), and have looked impressive in their two NIT victories. Thus, while their late season slump prevented them from being part of the big dance, Sendek has no doubt that this team would have been capable of a deep run in the NCAA tournament.

"If you look at different segments of the season, including the one we're in right now," Sendek noted, "They are playing as well as anybody."

Sendek acknowledged that Selection Sunday was a "painful moment" and when addressing the media that day, he predicted that it would a monumental task for his team to dust itself off, put the disappointment of not making the tournament in the rearview mirror, and get ready for what has been so far a successful run in the NIT.

"I was so proud of them on Monday, after Selection Sunday," Sendek recalled, "they came in and immediately their attitude was terrific. They had the right approach and energy level was good. Their immediate response really made me proud."

Harden obviously wishes that he could be part of the NCAA Tournament. Yet, just like that event the freshman truly believes that the NIT is a good experience and he and his teammates are relishing in the success they've had thus far. Getting past the discontent of not being part of the field of 65 appears to be the springboard to the fine play the Sun Devils are currently displaying.

"We grew a lot throughout the whole year," said Harden. "That was the turning point and I guess we just came together and closer…we still got some games, we're still playing for something. Guys matured and that next day in practice guys brought lots of energy, focus and were just ready to go."

The guard added that no players-only meeting was necessary to foster this positive attitude and that it all happened on the practice court. "That's how I knew guys matured," he stated.

Just like ASU and Harden, Florida's leading scorer is also a freshman guard in Nick Calathes. "Nick is a terrific player," Sendek noted. "I had a chance to watch him throughout high school and he's had a fantastic first year. Last game he might have had a triple double and he's a stat sheet stuffer. He clearly makes everyone on that team better."

ASU forward Jeff Pendergraph stated that offensively Florida does remind him of Oregon, in their explosiveness and athleticism. "The run a lot, they're a good transition team and they can all shoot the ball," he said. "They're just tough and you have to play great offense so they don't get an easy offense because they're gonna thrive off of turnovers and mental mistakes. They're a great transition team."

"They can score at all five positions like Oregon," said Sun Devil guard Derek Glasser. "They really hold in like Oregon does on defense and pack it inside…it's hard to guard a team like that that can score at all five positions. They have a real good young team, we have a real good young team and it's gonna be an exciting game."

It has been a great ride for the maroon and gold, one that hopefully won't end on Tuesday night. The 2007-08 season certainly presented many peaks and valleys for this young squad, but Pendergraph contends that the toughness and constant pursuit of excellence were always a big part of the team's makeup.

"We didn't win every single game, we didn't play as well as we did all the time," explained Pendergraph, "but we were still hungry the whole time and not getting down after a loss. We played bad, so it's like ‘OK let's get better.' We've been doing that all season and we've gotten better throughout the whole season, but we haven't hit a peak."

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