Bay Area trip reveals strengths, weaknesses

As the Sun Devils approach the midway point of the 2008-09 schedule after wrapping up the first weekend of Pac-10 Conference competition, several questions have been answered thus far; however some concerns remain as ASU surges toward the goal of an NCAA tournament berth.

Generally speaking the Devils flourished throughout the 12-game non-conference line-up, finishing with only one loss and winning ballgames in both convincing and dramatic fashion.

Sophomore James Harden has established himself as the most talented overall player in the Pac-10 and a candidate for national honors, leading the Pac-10 and ranking 10th in the nation in scoring (23.4 ppg.), while senior Jeff Pendergraph has had streaks of inside dominance as the league's field goal percentage leader (66.4 percent).

Sophomore Rihards Kuksiks has consistently scorched the twines from three-point distance, leading the Pac-10 in total three pointers made (38) while ranking fourth in the league in three-point percentage (52.7 percent).

After an impressive non-conference slate, the major Achilles heel that surfaced for the Devils was the problems the defense faces when confronted with good three-point shooting squads.

Recently capitalizing on that weakness was California, only the second team to defeat the Devils, who currently leads the nation in three-point percentage (50.5 percent) and connected on 9-of-18 against the Devils, a season-high outside accuracy surrendered by ASU this season. It is no coincidence that in ASU's only other loss on the season, Baylor strongly relied on long range shooting, connecting on 11 treys, at a success rate of nearly 46-percent from outside.

ASU's first set of Pac-10 games showcased the Jekyll and Hyde of the Sun Devils, after destroying Stanford in the most lopsided victory for the Devils in the history of the series between the two teams, ASU suffered a double-figure margin of defeat at the hands of California two days later.

During the Devils' 30-point drubbing of the Cardinal, Pendergraph swiftly capitalized on the gaping holes left by the early NBA departures by Brook and Robin Lopez, notching a career-high 31 points to go with 11 rebounds and three blocks, while shooting over 70 percent from the field for the game and routinely scoring with ease in the paint.

Harden played the unique role of supporting act to Pendergraph but did so in stellar fashion, adding 17 points and tying his career-high of 10 assists. Defensively, ASU hounded the Trees all 40 minutes, allowing Stanford to connect on a measly 37.5 percent on field goal attempts while making only 2-of-18 outside attempts.

After Friday's smashing performance it appeared as though ASU had what is necessary to dominate the Pac-10 world, but returned to reality thanks to the slick shooting by the overachieving Bears. Cal seared the nets from all across the hardwood, thwarting any ability for ASU to capitalize on scoring runs.

Thankfully, the only time ASU will see a team as potent as Cal from the perimeter is when the Bears come to Tempe, as with the exception of Arizona and ASU, no other Pac-10 squad ranks anywhere within the nation's top-50 in three point field goal percentage.

Defensively, the Devils have the ability to stifle just about any opponent and with the dynamic scoring potential the team possesses, there are definite reasons to have big time optimism for the remainder of the year, however the long-range shooting may remain ASU's kryptonite.

Additionally, despite consecutive games, against Idaho State and Stanford, with all starters scoring in double figures, there has been a lack of consistent scoring outside of Harden, Pendergraph and Kuksiks and few noticeable contributions from the bench as a whole, as the team's usual reserves combine to average just 11.4 points-per-game.

The Devils are at their best when not placing complete reliance in one or two scorers, but when doing what is necessary to create offensive opportunities for each player on the floor. There have been quite a few instances in which ASU has looked downright deadly, but this team certainly isn't without flaw.

However, let it not be forgotten that this is as capable and intense a team as ASU has supplied in many years and despite what many consider a disappointing loss in Berkeley, Calif., the squad still maintains the ability to compete for an upper level Pac-10 finish.

In the context of the Conference, the first weekend of action proved that the only thing that is for sure is that nothing is for sure, as only California and league favorite UCLA exited unscathed, while surprises sprouted such as Oregon State's overtime victory over USC and Arizona getting broomed in the bay area.

ASU's next group of opponents, Oregon State (6-6, 1-1) and Oregon (6-8, 0-2), combined for only one win out of four Pac-10 games this weekend and hold the two worst overall records in the league, presenting a late holiday gift to potentially help get the Devils back on the winning track.

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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