Devils Feel Good About Anaheim Performance

ASU played its past three games at the Anaheim Classic tournament, where the Sun Devils finished with a 2-1 record. Many called that stretch of games a good barometer for the maroon and gold and in light of the results head coach Herb Sendek and senior forward Jeff Pendergraph were generally pleased with the team's showing over the Thanksgiving weekend.

"We most certainly had a great desire to win the tournament," said Sendek whose squad beat Charlotte and UTEP but lost to Baylor in between. "I thought we played well the first and third games. We weren't nearly pleased with our effort in the middle game."

Pendergraph echoed the same sentiments.

"Team wise I think we did really good," stated the senior. "Especially responding to the loss against Baylor, that was a really good way to come and play against El Paso like we did. Honestly I don't think we should have lost to Baylor, I think we should have kicked their butt too.

"But that was a good test for us. That was the best competition we had so far. The first time we played a against an NCAA tournament team. That was a good test for us to see what we really have to do to be successful this year, make it to the tournament and make a run in the tournament…even though it was loss it was good to go through that early this season."

Jeff Pendergraph was out to a slow start this season, but ended up averaging 16.6 points a game in that tournament.

"Individually I think I did really good," said Pendergraph. "First couple of games I wasn't the usual me and I think this tournament definitely helped. It was the old Jeff (playing) again. That little funk I was in, I'm not in it no more."

"We need Jeff playing his best," acknowledged Sendek, "him playing at a high level is really important for our basketball team. I thought he really came alive in Anaheim."

The senior credited his recent success to his teammates finding him more often and not facing the usual double teams he saw often last year.

Pendergraph admitted that it was a mental thing, but was told by his coaches to be more worry- free. He took that approach to heart and believes that even the rest of the team followed the same path which ultimately has led to their success thus far. "When we have fun playing, everybody gets to play so much better," explained Pendergraph.

The senior believes that when the team played well, like it did against UTEP in a 30-point win, offensive schemes or game plans have less of an effect than some may think. "Most of the time we didn't even run anything," admitted the forward. "We were just having fun playing, getting easy points."

Nonetheless, Pendergraph noted that when the Sun Devils' offensive schemes are executed properly, the team's chances at success are significantly enhanced.

"It's cool because it's tough for other teams to guard because it's a lot of stuff," said Pendergraph …when we're doing it right it wears them out. We might not score on the first two, three passes. We get to five or six we'll probably end up getting a lay-up.

"And then you have to go and play against our defense too. That's tough. So if we can get that mindset that ‘all right, make them guard us' everything will be easier. Good things happen like they did against UTEP."

Very few players in the country have had a sizzling start to the season as James Harden. He became the first player to earn Pac-10 Player of the Week in back-to-back weeks since Washington's Brandon Roy notched the feat Harden is averaging an even 30 points per game in the past four outings.

In that time the 6-5 sophomore is shooting .561 from the field (37-of-66), 11-of-21 (.524) from the three-point stripe and is 35-of-39 (.897) from the foul line.

Harden's 40-points showing against UTEP impressed Pendergraph mainly because he believes it's done in a surprisingly subtle manner.

"He'll get a couple buckets and you see he has ten (points) and he's just mellowing off for a little bit," commented Pendergraph. "Next thing I know I'm looking up (at the scoring sheet) and I'm like ‘is that 30-something?' That's insane.

"Not to be selfish or anything but I haven't touched the ball in forever, so how the heck did we score so many points? What's going on? I could just sit down, James is doing everything…I got eight points and we beat a team by 30? That was crazy…"

Naturally, Harden's exploits are accomplished in part due to the sophomore's ability to perform under pressure. "It's pretty cool just watching that," noted Pendergraph. "I told coach ‘you better take him out before he has 50 or you won't be able to tell him anything.' That was impressive.

"It's crunch time and we go back to the huddle, coach starts talking and James says ‘we're gonna run this…I need the ball. Give me the ball.' And then it's ‘Jeff, go out there and set a ball screen, James do your thing.' It works and it's a lot of fun. He just gets a little bit of advantage and he's at the basket. It's crazy."

In Sendek's opinion, there's no one specific skill that Harden is notably better than last year, but it's rather his collective improvement that is the key to his find play thus far in the 2008-09 campaign.

"I think he just has gotten better across the board," commented Sendek. "He's a better player than he was a year ago."

ASU's trademark zone defense is once proving to be an invaluable asset. The Devils rank second in the league in field goal percentage defense (.368) and third in scoring defense (59.5 ppg). One player already making his mark on this side of the court is Ty Abbott. The sophomore is averaging 5.5 rebounds per contest and leads the team with five blocks.

"I like the fact that he communicates," noted Sendek on Abbott's performance on defense. "He competes and he leads us in defensive rebounding (5.0 rpg) at the moment and that's a big thing. He's vocal in practice and active.

"Ty is a smart player both offensively and defensively. He knows what's going on and that's part of it too. He's never caught out of position because he doesn't know where he has to be. He sees the game well, knows the game well…he picks up things very easily."

Aside from Harden, junior guard Jerren Shipp has been performing at a very steady level for ASU and his versatility when coming off the bench has benefited the maroon and gold.

"He's kind of the consummate utility infielder," described Sendek. "We plug him a lot of different places on the floor. He has the wisdom and experience…I think Jerren has done a nice job embracing his role."

"He's not scoring big points or grabbing 18 rebounds," added Pendergraph, "but he steps on the court you can really tell he's there.

"Guys coming off the bench and giving us such a big boost, I think that's what makes us so different than last year. Guys come off the bench and really contributing and it's not a big drop-off. Most of the time it stays even. That's a great thing to have when you know guys are gonna come into the game and make things happen."

"It's important to have production from your bench," said Sendek. "I think that Jerren has really given us some good minutes."

An argument can be made that aside from harden and Shipp, inconsistency has already plagued the rest of the ASU players. The fact that Devils are 5-1 despite that shortcoming shows Pendergraph how far the team has come from last year. "I think this tournament has really brought everybody together within their roles and everything."

"I don't think we all played our best together yet," said Sendek. "We've had different guys have good games here and there. But we haven't consistently all been at our best at this point."


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