Conversely, ASU's foes this year have been undoubtedly taking note of the emerging Sun Devil program, and Harden acknowledged that this changes the perception the maroon and gold will have throughout the season.
"We have to be ready to go every single game," stated Harden. "We can't be the sleeper team anymore. People know who we are now and some people will go after us since we're ranked. We just have to go out there with the mindset that we'll compete every minute of the game."
It's not that Harden doesn't appreciate the compliments and respect that college basketball pundits are giving him and the rest of the ASU squad. Yet, he knows that all that recognition won't contribute to the team's success.
"That's not gonna do anything for us," stated Harden. "Grinding at practice, connecting to each other and bringing it to the game is what's most important for us."
Last year, not only did James Harden and his fellow quartet of freshmen know what to expect, but the guard felt that collectively the team was unsure on what the 2007-08 season was going to bring. Naturally, this year is a different story especially when it comes to mutual expectations between head coach Herb Sendek and his players.
"The coaches grew on us, worked with us learning the offense and defense," explained Harden. "Now we know the offense. We know the defense. We know what to expect and it's just a matter of playing hard."
Harden said that Sendek has a balance of seriousness and levity, and on game day it's definitely the former that characterizes the Sun Devil skipper and ultimately helps the team. "Now that we have been under him a year, we know when it's time to get serious," said Harden. "…we grew up on that and he has brought that into our mind sets and be focused when it's time."
Focus and dedication have not only defined Harden during last season, but also during the team's hiatus as he continually worked on his basketball skills and improving physically.
"My weak hand – my right hand, my mid-range game…just being able to play long periods of time without getting that tired," said harden in regards to aspects of his game he has tried to improve on.
Last season Harden made 44 out of 108 three-point attempts which were both second only to fellow sophomore Ty Abbott on the team. His 40.7% accuracy behind the arc paced the Sun Devils. This year, the NCAA men's basketball rules committee moved the line a full back a full foot to 20 feet, 9 inches from the basket. Sendek felt that this will result in a minimal effect of efficiency rates across college basketball, and Harden claimed that personally the impact on him is negligible.
"I didn't shoot a lot of threes last year," he said. "It doesn't change a lot. But this summer I've been working in a lot of camps shooting the NBA range (three feet further than college) three…the deep ball three is something I've been working on all summer, and so have a lot of our guys on the team."
Harden admitted that with sagging defenses in the second round of Pac-10 play, forced him to go to his right and generally made life more difficult for him on the offensive end. Nonetheless, there was a counter to that scheme which didn't cause Harden, and ultimately the team to falter down the stretch.
"Coaches and teammates did a real good job of adjusting and finding the seams in the defense and perfected it real well," explained Harden. "That's what makes coach (Sendek) so great – after or a loss or win, he stays up until 3,4 in the morning finding things we can get better at and give to us to execute."
Granted, Harden's offense is easily the strong suit of his game and one that has obviously garnered him many accolades at the college level. Yet, his defense, namely his steals, is a skill of his that normally goes unmentioned. His 73 steals (2.14 steals per game) paced the conference, as he was only the fifth ever freshman to accomplish that feat.
"My long arms help me out a lot," replied Harden when asked to explain this specific prowess. "I play a lot in the passing lanes, which is something that coach doesn't want me to do. But if I see something in the game I'll do it. This year I'm gonna be more focused on just locking down my man, which will help our defense much better."
"If we cut down on a lot of gambling and just be focused on not letting our man go pass us - it is one of the principles of our defense and our defense becomes a lot better."
Playing 34.1 minutes per game, can take an enormous toll on any college player, especially a freshman. Harden acknowledged that conditioning was an issue when he had his first taste of a full season of college basketball.
"The court is bigger than high school and it was just a whole experience getting used to," commented Harden. "Now they're no excuses. I have a year under my belt and now it's time just to really play basketball and execute. We all have that mind set of just going out and playing basketball."
Harden added that he didn't go home for the summer and spent those months in Tempe training with the team's strength and conditioning coach Rich Wenner. "I feel the greatest I ever felt in my life," said Harden.
The much publicized snub from the NCAA tournament selection committee may be something that the Sun Devil faithful may not soon forget, which is in sharp contrast to Harden and his teammates.
"That's past us," claimed Harden. "This year is a whole different year, different mindset. We're just trying to grow as a team, come closer and just take one game at a time.
ASU's style of play will call for pushing the ball more up the court, and ideally resulting in more fast break points than last year. So how will Harden fit that scheme?
"Coach said that he wants the point guards to push it, but if I get the rebound I'm going."
"Does he know that," a reporter asked the sophomore?
"No," said a laughing Harden.
Last year Harden, born Aug. 26 1989, was the youngest player in the Pac-10. However, his play on the court immediately had a lot of his teammates looking up to him and taking note, which turned him into one the Sun Devils' leaders
"I've never been the vocal type," admitted Harden. "I just go out and do. Last year, I was still trying to (figure out) the whole college basketball thing like all freshmen do. But this year I know what to expect and I'm gonna try and lead the freshmen and newcomers and some of the guys that have been here."
"We talk about different things and it helps us get better. The one year experience thing has helped us a lot."
In Harden's mind, there's only one clear cut vocal leader in the locker room – senior Jeff Pendergraph.
"He's the one that yells, screams and stuff like that," described Harden, "and I'm just right behind him saying ‘yeah!'. I'll let him do all that and I'm the second hand man."
Harden's focus also serves as a tool to deflect the inevitable questions on whether this will be his last season in Tempe. Even though many NBA draft experts have tabbed him a sure lottery pick, this a topic that the guard simply doesn't let enter his already occupied mind.
"I'm not worried about all the other things going on," said Harden. "I have a lot of stuff going on like academics and stuff like that. All that takes up my mind and that's the most important thing."
The sophomore said that he keeps in touch with O.J. Mayo who was also a newcomer to the Pac-10 last year, but left USC after his freshman year to enter the NBA draft. So far Mayo has painted Harden a very realistic picture of life of an NBA rookie.
"He said it's tough. He said the whole rookie thing isn't a fun experience," said Harden. "Yeah you're in the NBA, but you have to work and everybody is looking at you like a rookie. The veterans…you have to carry their bags…just things like that. The rookie experience is just crazy, but he's pushing through it. He's loving it – the NBA was his dream."
When asked if Mayo's testimony made him want to stay in college longer, a playful Harden exclaimed with a smile 'Yes!'