No Let Down for Sun Devils

What a difference a year makes. Going into last year's Pac-10 tournament, ASU was squarely on the NCAA tournament bubble, knowing that a loss could end their March Madness aspirations. Conversely, Arizona's ticket to the big dance was already punched in. This season, the roles have reversed for these bitter archrivals, who will meet on Thursday.

Even though their spot in the field of 64 is assured, Arizona State's motivation and focus for their meeting with Arizona at the Staples Center won't be affected. The maroon and gold know that their name will be called Sunday, but when and where (i.e. seeding) will definitely be determined by their performance in Los Angeles this week.

"I don't really spend a lot of time handicapping the field," said ASU head coach Herb Sendek. "For my own sanity I focus on our preparation for our next game. I have only so much time every day and that's where I choose to invest it.

"We tried to focus on in both cases, even last year (preparing for the Pac-10 tournament), on our next game. Last year, we were talking about what we need to do to beat USC, and that's where we try to discipline our attention. Now we're doing the same thing with Arizona. You can't play the next game, until you play this one. To the extent that we control where our mind is, we got to stay in the present. Sometimes it's more difficult than others."

Sendek stated that even though the team's NCAA tournament status is different than it was in 2008, that his squad doesn't have less desire to excel in the Pac-10 post season play. "Everything we have will be emptied on trying to do our best on Thursday," he said, "no more or more less than it was last Thursday a year ago. It's not like we're going to prepare less diligently.

"This isn't unique to us. All the teams prepare, want to do well, even teams that might have their eyes set on number one or number two seeds. They go into their conference tournaments, getting ready for tip-off. Everybody that's out there wants to do well."

"Knowing that you have the bid already enters the conscious a little bit," admitted senior forward Jeff Pendergraph. "We're still trying to play like we have no (NCAA tournament bid) because that's when we play our best. It's different than last year, but we're still trying to approach it with the attitude that we need as many (victories) as we can get. That will help us that much more."

"I don't if we're more relaxed," replied junior point guard Derek Glasser when asked to compare the current team's psyche to that of a year ago at this juncture of the season. "It's gonna be a tough game and we know that they are gonna give us their best game of the year. For us to win we are gonna have to play our best game of the year. That's what we are preparing to do."

Fellow point guard Jamelle McMillan is still sidelined with a groin injury, and his status for the Arizona game is uncertain. Glasser confessed that not having the services of the sophomore will certainly impact the Sun Devils for several reasons.

"Losing any guys, since our bench is so shorthanded, really hurts," Glasser stated. "But if Ty (Abbott) can respond like he did last game and Jerren (Shipp) can play well, I think we'll be OK. Jamelle made some big shots last time we played U of A. It's always more helpful for me to have a second guy that can really handle the ball. It takes the pressure off of me. I know it takes pressure off of him. I don't have to do it all by myself and he doesn't have to do it all by himself.

"It's definitely gonna be a tougher game without him because he brings so much to the defensive end also. The way he has been shooting the ball as of late, he's been one of our better players."

ASU has beaten Arizona twice this year. Does that give the Sun Devil an advantage or perhaps puts them at a disadvantage? "There's no way anybody could possibly know the answer to that question going in," replied Sendek. "It just comes down to those 40 or so minutes and who plays best."

The ASU head coach noted that there is always a psychosocial element to very contest, but at the same time hard to predict the psyche of all the individuals involved in the contest.

"You're not only talking about a collective mindset, but also each person, each coach, each player has their own place at that particular moment in time," explained Sendek. "There's a lot of moving parts."

Some of the pre-game talk for this game is centered around the notion that it's generally hard for a team to beat the same opponent three times in one season. Glasser quickly refuted that point of view reminding that Washington achieved that feat against the maroon and gold during his freshman campaign.

"Maybe teams relax, they feel they won twice already….but that's something we're not gonna do," Glasser claimed. "We know how good they are. We know that if one shot wouldn't have gone in they could have beaten us either place. If one call didn't go our way…

"We're treating it as if we didn't beat them twice, like it's the first game of the year, and it kind of is, with the Pac-10 tournament. Everybody is starting at 0-0 and playing for a championship."

Tip-off for the Duel in the Desert is Noon, and Glasser jokingly pointed out that he was happy with that early start since ASU is 3-0 this season in games with similar tip-off times. "Sometimes playing games later in the day, you spend all day thinking about it," Glasser acknowledged. "With Noon you pretty much wake up and you have to get ready to go. It takes a little of that anxiety out of the day."

Glasser added that previously this season, his team's day started at 8 AM when they had a Noon tip-off. He was pleased to learn that he and his teammates will have a full warm-up session unlike other teams paying later on Thursday.

The junior didn't go as far as to say the he and his teammates have extra motivation for Thursday because of their opponent, and claimed that the game is a must-win for both teams.

"We want to play for a higher seed and solidify us being in the tournament," he explained, "and for them they want to play themselves into the tournament. So it's gonna be a heck of a game."

Glasser noted that the Sun Devils' two victories over the Wildcats were hard fought contests and decided by the smallest of margins. "They have as much talent as anyone in the conference and probably any team in the country with those three guys," Glasser said of Chase Budinger, Jordan Hill and Nic Wise. "They're still playing phenomenal basketball."

ASU certainly has had it struggles down the stretch, dropping three of last four games, but the Wildcats sport a slightly worse track record themselves, losing four of the last five. Arizona's loss to the Sun Devils began a four-game losing streak for the Wildcats, yet Sendek actually has seen some positives manifest themselves in the squad from Tucson.

"They're just like the rest of us, taking one game at a time," he stated. "Some moments are better than others. Everyone talks about their big three, but I think a lot of their other guys have really stepped up and made them even better."

If ASU were to prevail over its rival, Sendek acknowledged a formidable opponent, whomever that may be, will be waiting. The Sun Devils skipper, who is "admittedly biased", was once again singing the praises of the Pac-10.

"There are no incapable teams in our league," Sendek noted. "It was an unbelievable regular season and it should be a heck of a tournament. As we round the corner and talk post-season, I'll champion as many of our teams as possible, because I really believe in their excellence and quality."

Sendek sees no connection between level of performance in a conference tournament and the NCAA tournament play. Additionally, he felt that the NCAA selection committee should look at a team's body of work the entire season, without giving added weight to the conference tournament when handing out bids or calculating seeding.

"We just got done playing an 18-game round robin regular season schedule," Sendek said. "So that shouldn't be displaced by the conference tournament that spans two, three days. In some cases the conference tournaments are played on certain teams' home courts. It's not done the same way in every conference."

Pendergraph admitted that it's weird to even talk about Arizona, who has qualified for the NCAA tournament 24 years in a row, as being a bubble team, and he definitely has a sense of Déjà vu when thinking about that.

"They are like we were last year," he said. "For us last year our season was alright. We've could have done better here and there, and certain losses kind of hurt us just like them. This is must win for them; they want to better their chances of getting in so I'd say they are in a similar situation (as ASU last year).

"They have been there so many years in a row and for it to kind of fall down between us and them, if they get to go or not…that's some fate stuff. ASU versus U of A, tournament on the line, you can't really make that up. It's been planned out."

And there's another streak that Pendergraph would like to end, and that is to simply win a Pac-10 tournament game. The Sun Devils haven't been able to accomplish that since the tournament was been reinstated in 2002.

"We're trying not to take an early exit," he said. "I like not playing tomorrow (Wednesday the play-in stage). But I never played on Friday, so that would be fun just to get one."

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