Basketball Season Preview

When a new coach is brought in to rebuild, it is said that by the third season, fans should start seeing the signs of a full turnaround. Head coach Herb Sendek was impatient. In his second season at ASU – Sendek saw his team go from 8 to 21 wins in a single season. With two bona fide stars in James Harden and Jeff Pendergraph, the expectations for this ASU team are higher than ever before.

Ranked 15th in the preseason polls and with their top nine scorers returning from last season's quarterfinal run in the NIT, the Sun Devils are poised to break out and reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003.

"We've covered a lot of ground," said Sendek on the team's rapid improvement in a short time. "It's not like we can exhale like we've arrived. We're tremendously hungry. We're very humble at recognizing we have an enormous amount of work to do."

"It's great there is some excitement and there is some euphoria and everyone has high expectations for us but trust me, we have a lot of work to do on every level, every front and to think otherwise would be absolutely foolish, to the highest degree."

In Sendek's first year, the Sun Devils' slow offensive pace was described as "taking the air out of the ball." That is what the overall quality of personnel at the time dictated. Last year, on the heels of a top 25 recruiting class, highlighted by Harden, the maroon and gold played at a more up tempo pace.

This year's offense figures to be more free flowing, and one that will be employing schemes that will be harder for defenses to detect. On that same token, the players will get a chance to express themselves within the system in multiple ways.

The Devils shot 35.5% beyond the arc, and this year's movement of the three-point line a foot further away won't alter the overall mentality of the team of always taking an open shot when it presents itself. Thus far in practices, the maroon and gold haven't shown any adverse effect from this line change. Nonetheless, it stands to reason that shooting percentages from this range across the country will probably drop as the season wears down.

The team's highly effective zone defense has held opponents in Sendek's first two years to under 62 points a game, and has been a distinct advantage for ASU. Needless to say that ASU's opponents will see more of the same this year. Certainly, the Sun Devils can still improve in that area and increase their scoring margin from last year of 4.9 ppg.

Here's a look at the players that make up the 2008-09 ASU men's basketball squad:

Returnees

Jeff Pendergraph (6-9 240 12.4 PPG, 6.4 RPG) – Entering his fourth and final season in Maroon and Gold, Pendergraph has been through a tumultuous three seasons but all his hard work just may pay off in his farewell campaign. The big man, who has over 1,000 points in his Sun Devil career, has realistic NBA aspirations, and has built more strength in the offseason that will help him on both ends of the floor.

Pendergraph is at a stage of his career where he's really honing on the skills he does well, such as running the floor, rebounding, scoring versatility, etc. As a senior, he takes pride in being the emotional leader on the team, and part of that is a sense of urgency as the forward wraps up his Sun Devil tenure.

Derek Glasser (6-1 190 6.1 PPG, 4.0 APG) – as steady as it gets with the ball in his hands, Glasser will never be a flashy ball-handler or an explosive scorer but he has the intangibles and mentality to run a team and stay calm in all situations. With two years of starting under his belt, look for Glasser to get the majority of the crucial minutes.

Glasser continues to be the solid point guard that has progressed and plays like an upperclassmen. His experience is only second to that of Pendergraph, and it shows.

Jerren Shipp (6-3 220 5.9 PPG, 3.6 RPG) – another player who may not have all the appealing measurables, but was the unsung hero of the team last year. He can play multiple positions on the floor and he can score from the perimeter or can drive the lane. In many games he was asked to defend down low with Pendergraph and his blue collar work ethic made up for what he lacked in size.

This season he's unlikely to start 16 games as he did last year and even his 26.3 minutes per game is a stat that will in all probability decrease this season. With the emergence of other forwards on the team, you can expect the guard to play more in ASU's backcourt and be less of the utility player – a role he assumed successfully in 2007-08. This however shouldn't be confused with the fact that Shipp will continue to stick in nose in every play and be second to no one on the team in terms of his hustle.

James Harden (6-5 218 17.8 PPG, 5.3 RPG) – before he ever stepped foot on campus, there was a buzz around Harden. He was a highly decorated high school star and his decision to attend ASU surprised many. Immediately after signing his Letter of Intent, the expectations settled in. Can he produce right away? Will he be as good a shooter as advertised? Will he be explosive? Can he lead us to the postseason?

These were incredible demands for a young kid joining a team with just eight wins the year before but he took it all in stride and profoundly answered every one of those questions with a resounding yes.

Harden is considered one of the nation's best players and should be in contention for player of the year honors not only in the Pac-10 but in the country. He still has some weaknesses exposed as in his weak right hand, outside shot, stamina and strength. In the off-season the sophomore has taken inventory of his game and made a strong effort to improve on his deficiencies. His increased strength has already been documented, and his leadership and confidence are some of his other attributes that have been noticeably (and positively) different than last year.

Ty Abbott (6-3 215 9.9 PPG, 36% 3PT) – after de-commiting from New Mexico and joining the Sun Devils late in the signing period – a lot of fans were excited to have some local talent joining the program but didn't have a lot of expectations. The Phoenix Desert Vista alum broke an ASU freshman record with 84 three-pointers and became a mainstay in the backcourt as the season went along. Abbott will get a chance to build on his stellar freshman season with a year of experience under his belt and having dangerous options all around him.

The book on Abbott last season could be summed up in one word: consistency. His streaks of good shooting more often than not aided ASU to victories. Consequently, when slumping his team would usually find itself on the losing end. Successful teams, even as recent as the Boston Celtics, do need the proverbial three-headed monster on offense to be successful. Abbott can be that missing piece that together with Pendergraph and Harden can lead an explosive Sun Devil offense.

Rihards Kuksiks (6-6 205 5.4 PPG, 37% 3PT) – the sharp-shooting forward from Latvia came on strong halfway through the season and cemented his spot in the lineup as he gained more consistency in the system. Kuksiks will be relied upon to be a scoring threat and situational shooter all season long and should get plenty of opportunities to launch threes.

He's arguably the most improved player from last season. Like Harden, has done a solid job reshaping his body and improving his conditioning, which has directly led to his noticeable improvement in the pre-season. Mobility and athleticism, as well as shooting touch, are other areas where Kuksiks is really excelling in. Having said that, his contributions on defense should be just as great as his offensive ones. He stands to be the long term starter down low with Pendergraph.

Eric Boateng (6-10 245 3.9 PPG, 3.0 RPG) – from beginning to end last season; no player made greater strides in their game than Boateng. The expectations were enormous after the McDonald's All-American transferred from Duke and was expected to team up with Pendergraph and wreak havoc on smaller foes.

However, Boateng had trouble grasping Sendek's schemes and saw time only when Pendergraph was in foul trouble or needed a breather. As the season wore on, Boateng became more reliable on both sides of the floor and had a big hand in securing a few wins down the stretch. Last year, Boateng started alongside Pendergraph the first two games, and then was regulated as a reserve the rest of the year. There's a good chance that this combination will be tried again, and Boateng this time around stands a better chance to cement himself as a starter. He has gained a much better understanding of the system and is another example of a successful off-season weight and conditioning program.

Jamelle McMillan (6-2 180 2.6 PPG, 2.1 APG) – another young player who showed great improvement as the season went on, McMillan started the season a bit sluggish as he lacked confidence and was a bit trigger shy. He picked up the pace and really turned a corner in Tucson as he scored a big bucket and played will after Glasser fouled out to secure the victory over archrival Arizona.

McMillan is more athletic than Glasser and will be used as a change of pace in the offense. As is stands right now, he will start ahead of Glasser. Labeled as the consummate professional, one that has grown around the game thanks to the playing and coaching career of his father, his confidence is greater than ever and his shooting touch has been a big beneficiary of that attribute.

Kraidon Woods (6-8 199, 0.8 ppg 0.5 rpg) – A raw and athletic big man that saw little time last season is expected to make a jump into the rotation especially if the Pendergraph/Boateng starting lineup is here to stay. There's no doubt that he has the athleticism and the length to be successful, and really needed to enhance those skills and make them his calling card.

With a rough freshman year behind him, and hopefully a better understanding of the system, Woods could make that crucial leap from insignificance to contributor. Thus far, he has shown flashes but will have to ultimately turn these sparks into a lasting flame.

Newcomers

Johnny Coy (6-7 205) a highly-touted recruit out of St. Joseph, Missouri – Coy gave Sun Devil fans some anxious moments as they waited to see if he would pursue a professional baseball career with the Philadelphia Phillies.

Eventually, Coy rejected the offer and is on campus to play both basketball and baseball at ASU. With a bevy of different talents, Coy can shoot the lights out and attack the rim. He's a deceptive athlete that has the skills set to be productive. His rate of understanding what's expected of him will determine his contributions this season. He's goten off to a slow start and redshirting him this year is a strong possibility

Taylor Rohde (6-8 220) the forward is a local high school star who throughout his prep career has shown both the ability to knock down outside shots as well as having a soft touch around the basket. You can argue that he's not the most athletic or strong of a forward, but at the end of the day he's a stat stuffer, hard-nose player that has shown much promise in the pre-season and is poised to be more productive than some thought he would be in his freshman year.

The Sun Devils are a team that does return a lot of players, but the overwhelming number of squad members are underclassmen. It's a group that is still needs to get itself game ready and learn how to execute what has been taught in practice and in the film room at a high level.

This certainly is no different than any other college team that has just a month of practices under its belt, but the successful teams are able to pick that component up early in the season and maintain a high level of execution throughout the year. ASU will have to be ones of the teams so they can realize all the expectations that have been put on them.

Last year at this time, ASU was a great unknown. They had some talent, but had even more unproven players which made for great uncertainty around the team. Obviously, last year's performance has given everyone a better sense of what to expect and the college basketball pundits responded with a bevy of accolades bestowed on the maroon and gold.

The Sun Devils have to develop an identity and prove that they have earned all the compliments they have been receiving for the last seven or so months.

"We can be as good as we want to be," said Pendergraph. "I think we can be one of the best team's that ASU, Arizona and even the country has seen in a while. That's just all a matter of it being on us. If we want to be that good I think we can be that good. If we're not that good then it is on us."

"No matter who you are where you are the minute you think you've made it in sports that doesn't work to your favor," said Sendek. "You always have to have a hunger or a great desire. You always have to be looking for ways to improve. I use that descriptively as a way to explain that right now we recognize that we have a lot of work to do."

Prediction Last year, we thought we were being greedy when we stated that the Sun Devils would win 15 games and hover around .500. Turns out a lot of us sold those guys short. So this year, we will have to take it up a few notches.

In a down year in the Pac-10 to go along with a favorable non-conference slate to start the year off, the Sun Devils have a realistic chance of finishing 2nd in the Pac-10 behind UCLA and winning 23 games in the regular season.

Moving on to the postseason, the Sun Devils should have no trouble making it into the Big Dance and could possibly make a run to the Sweet 16.

Note: Jack Leary, Darren Schwandt and Hod Rabino contributed to this article.


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