ASU Basketball Team in Uncharted Waters

It may be football's Homecoming weekend at ASU; however a significant portion of the buzz on campus is not attached to events at Sun Devil Stadium, but rather to ASU's neighboring athletic facility, Wells Fargo Arena, home to its nationally-ranked men's basketball team.

For the first time in recent -- or even distant -- memory, the Sun Devils enter the basketball season with realistic expectations to be one of the premier teams in the Pac-10 Conference.

Different from years past, predicted success is not out of the realm of sanity -- but the operative word in that statement is "predicted", a term of conditionality that has evolved to make Sun Devil fans in virtually any sports context shudder.

With only one NCAA Tournament berth since the 1994-95 season, the spark of success for Sun Devil basketball seemed dim for quite a while before the outstanding turnaround orchestrated by head coach Herb Sendek last season, which was highlighted by a school record and nation-best turnaround, improving from 8-22 in 2006-07 to 21-13 in 2007-08, including a fifth-place Pac-10 finish, only the fourth time since '94-'95 that the Devils finished among the top half in the conference standings.

Additionally, home attendance figures jumped noticeably in proportion to the team's success and that spark has since flamed into an inferno, igniting the enthusiasm of the student body and surrounding community -- while also commanding national attention -- as the Devils embark on what is predicted to be a memorable and successful season in 2008-09.

This season, there are tremendous expectations and there is sensational potential, but there is also a sense of urgency. It may not be "now or never" for the Devils in 2008-09, but if the program is going to propel to among the Pac-10 elite, it must begin immediately.

There is no question that the backbone of the Sun Devils is the combination of superstar sophomore James Harden and reliable senior Jeff Pendergraph. Harden, arguably the conference's most prolific athlete and the only returning First-Team All-Pac-10 performer from last season and Pendergraph, a Third-Team All-League member last year and one of the most prominent post players in conference, give the Devils possibly the Pac's most dynamic double feature.

Likely the most effective inside-outside, one-two punch since ASU's "Sweet Sixteen" squad of the mid-nineties, both players may potentially conclude their collegiate careers this season as Pendergraph will exhaust his eligibility while Harden may succumb to the lure of NBA dollar signs in 2009 after resisting the urge to turn pro after his freshman season. With the likelihood of losing the two most recognizable names on the roster, success and development of the remaining lineup and the program as a whole is integral to sustained success for the Devils.

Does that mean desperation and pessimism for 2008-09? Hardly. But ASU finds itself smack dab at the pitchfork in the road separating the Devils from Pac-10 mediocrity and excellence, and the new era of Sun Devil basketball begins with what happens this season -- whichever direction it may be.

What Sendek has done in only two years in Tempe is nothing short of amazing, as he guided ASU to only its fourth 20-plus win season since the Ned Wulk era and the greatest wins total since '94-'95, while already surpassing the single season wins high (20) of the eight year tenure of the ASU's previous coaching regime.

The framework for prolonged success appears to be in place; aside from Sendek and his star duo, sophomore Ty Abbott exhibited excellent potential during a record-setting freshman season, while reliable if unspectacular junior Derek Glasser provides stability at point guard and classmate Jerren Shipp offers a hard-nosed, veteran bench presence. Additionally, sophomores Rihards Kuksiks and Jamelle McMillan and junior Eric Boateng have shown noticeable improvement in the off-season and will be counted upon to provide consistent contributions in their collective second season at ASU.

Spectacular performances have come to be the norm from Harden, while consistency is the name of Pendergraph's game and when Abbott catches fire from long distance, more than just ASU's student section will be termed "The Inferno". With consistency from the remaining components of ASU's predicted eight-man rotation, the Devils pose the ability to attack opponents from a number of directions.

Furthermore encouraging is ASU's returning roster among mass Pac-10 exodus after last season, as the Devils merely lose a combined 2.2 points per game from the departures of graduate Antwi Atuahene and transfers Christian Polk (UTEP) and Steve Jones (UNLV). Add a season sweep of bitter rival Arizona, a troubled state of affairs among the men's basketball program down south and a consensus top-20 national ranking entering the season and Sun Devil fans are chomping at the bit to usher in a predicted new era of ASU basketball.

However, we've heard this before in several capacities and the results have certainly been mixed; conditional terms and sentiments of hope have been challenging concepts to Sun Devil fans as of late. Expectations can be a tricky science; what is levied upon teams by fans and media can rarely be congruent to a team's actual ability.

Whether it was expected to be the case at this point, the fact of the matter is that Arizona State is a nationally ranked basketball team is poised to compete for an upper position in the Pac-10 standings. An NCAA Tournament berth this year is a must; no longer is it a pipe dream or merely a perk.

With accomplishment comes expectation, and the bar has been raised at ASU declaring that no longer will middle to lower tier Pac-10 finishes and three-letter postseason tournaments be acceptable. Top quality recruits and national notoriety are starting to trickle to campus and a successful season in '08-'09 could shift that to a downpour.

Coach Sendek and company have given Sun Devil fans more than they could have reasonably hoped for heading only into the regime's third season in Tempe. The pieces are in place for this year to be unlike any other Sun Devil fans have witnessed for several decades and to create the foundation of a program that has long searched for hardwood glory.

Joe Healey is a 2006 graduate of Arizona State University and a guest contributor to Devils Digest. He is also a feature writer each month in Maroon and Gold Illustrated and has contributed to ASU media guides, press releases and other official athletic publications. He can be contacted by email at josephwhealey@hotmail.com.


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