Devils Enter Dance on a High Note

Getting into the NCAA tournament is an exciting achievement, but the euphoria of that feat can be dampened if a team is "backing" its way into the Big Dance. Judging but its last four games, Arizona State should be free of those apprehensions. The Sun Devils are arguably playing at their highest level of the season, and that should bode well for them as they start play Friday against Temple.

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"We are very excited to be in the field and I know we play an outstanding Temple team," said Arizona State head coach Herb Sendek on selection Sunday, "a team that's playing terrific basketball right now having just won the Atlantic 10 Championship. I've known Coach Dunphy (Temple's head coach John Dunphy) for a long time and have tremendous respect for him. He had great success at Penn and has certainly carried on the Temple tradition which goes a long way back in basketball."

Season Overview

The Sun Devils finished 24-9 this season under 307-game winner Herb Sendek, and registered an 11-7 record in the Pac-10 play. ASU tied for third in the conference which is its best Pac-10 finish since the 1994-95 Sweet Sixteen team. That season also marks the last time that the Devils recorded 24 victories in one campaign.

ASU has posted back-to-back 20-win seasons for the first time since the 1979-80 team that went 22-7 and the 1980-81 team went 24-4. The last time ASU had back-to-back winning seasons was during 1993-94 (15-13 record) and the 1994-95 season (24-9).

In just three years, Coach Sendek has done a masterful job turning around the fortunes of the maroon and gold. After going 8-22 in the 2006-2007 season, the Sun Devils are 45-22 (.672) since then. During that stretch they have given up just 61.1 points per game in those 96 games and are second in conference in points allowed this year at 60.1 per game, best by a Sun Devil team since 1948-49 (47.6).

Best Wins/Worst Losses

ASU compiled a 13-1 non-conference record, with its lone defeat coming at the hands of Baylor, 87-78, at the 76 Classic tournament in Anaheim, Calif. In other games outside of the Pac-10, the Sun Devils prevailed over #30 BYU (who was 10-0 at the time) on a neutral court, at #35 San Diego State, beat #85 UTEP in Anaheim and topped #75 Nebraska (6-0 at time of game) in Tempe.

In league play, ASU beat its archrival Arizona three times, swept the season series with UCLA, and defeated Arizona Pac-10 season champion Washington in the conference tournament. ASU played 18 of its 33 games away from Tempe and was 6-4 in road games and 6-2 in neutral site contests.

"I think we played very well against Cal, Arizona and Washington and I thought we played exceptionally well the first half against USC so for three games plus one-half, we have played very well," said Sendek of his team's last four contests. "I thought we played very well in the five-game stretch before we went to the northwest as well, and I don't know that we played poorly in the northwest: we lost two overtime games to two really good basketball teams, so I do think our team has played well, if you want to bracket that part of the schedule and look at it from that standpoint.

"This past weekend I thought we played some of our best basketball of the season, not withstanding the last 20 minutes against USC."

Meet the Sun Devils

This season the Sun Devil compiled a 9-5 record versus teams who have qualified for the 2009 tournament. It did however get swept by Washington State, and fell at home to Stanford, both teams who didn't qualify for the field of 65 teams.

The offensive star for ASU, guard James Harden, was ultimately voted as the Pac-10's player of the year. The sophomore was also named All-American by Sporting News, and Harden is averaging 20.8 points per game, 5.5 rebounds and 4.2 assists.

The sophomore is a lethal weapon who frustrates defenses with his incredible ability to penetrate the lane and finish, as well as drain long range jump shots when not pressured. The defensive attention he draws game in and game out, has created a plethora of offensive opportunities for his teammates.

Jeff Pendergraph is the lone senior on the squad, and he holds the school-record of 118 starts and leads the nation in field goal percentage at 66.5. In Pac-10 play alone, the forward has converted at a 67.3 percent clip. In 124 career games he has averaged 12.6 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, and has 11 double-doubles this year.

Pendergraph, the clear-cut emotional leader of this team, is an agile player that moves very well in the paint and finished strong around the basket. If forced outside the lane, he has shown some success to score on his mid-range jumper. He barely gets beat for a rebound on defense, and is an above average shot blocker.

When Harden or Pendergraph draw a double team, sharp shooter Rihards Kuksiks is usually the beneficiary of that scenario. The sophomore is averaging 10.5 points, including 73-of-161 (.453) from the three-point stripe, in his past 25 games. He is shooting 85-of-192 (.443) from the three-point stripe, and his 85 three-pointers on the year is third-most in ASU history.

Point guard Derek Glasser, who won a California state championship with Harden at Artesia High School, earned Pac-10 All-Tournament honors just this past weekend by averaging 13.7 points in the three games. He shot 16-of-31 (.516) from the field, made 5-of-11 (.455) from the three-point stripe and had 12 assists and just four turnovers while averaging 37.3 minutes per game. The junior averages 4.3 assists a game and tied for first (with UCLA's Darren Collison) in the assists/turnover ratio category at 2.2 per game.

ASU's match up zone has frequently frustrated opponents, who overall averaged 60.1 points a game versus the Sun Devils, and collectively shot 40.9 percent from the field. It is a scheme which forces the Sun Devils' foes to settle for shot attempts beyond the arc, when the driving lanes are clogged up.

Conversely, when ASU is faced with a zone defense they're usually able to successfully attack it with their three-point shooting and have made 267 baskets from that range this season. Where the Sun Devils often falter on offense is when teams employ full court pressure and exploit their lack of ball handlers on the team. Another deficiency of the maroon and gold is their lack of depth. It isn't uncommon for the team to have a seven-man rotation during a game, which can be liability in an up-tempo match or during foul trouble situations.

NCAA Tournament History

This year marks ASU's 13th NCAA appearance and first since 2003. ASU is 12-13 in the previous 12 appearances and has reached the Final Eight on three occasions. The Sun Devils did it in 1961, 1963 and 1975 -- all under coach Ned Wulk.

In 2003, ASU was a 10-seed and beat seventh-seeded Memphis 84-71 before eventual national runner-up Kansas beat ASU 108-76 in Oklahoma City. In 1995 under Bill Frieder ASU (the No. 5 seed in the Southeast) beat Ball State 81-66 and topped Manhattan 64-54 in Memphis to advance to the Sweet Sixteen, where it fell to second-ranked Kentucky 97-67 in Birmingham.

Herb Sendek is making his first appearance in the NCAA Tournament with ASU and his seventh overall. His tournament record is 6-6. He was 1-1 with Miami (Ohio) in 1995, and went 5-5 as his North Carolina State teams made five straight appearances from 2002-2006. He is 5-1 in first-round games.

ASU – Temple History

ASU is 4-1 against Temple, as the schools last met at Temple on November 30, 2004, with ASU winning 65-62, while the year prior ASU beat the Owls 70-66 at America West Arena in Phoenix on December 9, 2003.

ASU also beat Temple 73-65 on Dec. 27, 1976, and on Dec. 28, 1971, both in Honolulu. Temple's win came on Dec. 28, 1966, in Oklahoma City.

Meet the Owls

Temple's head coach John Dunphy has gone away from the trademark match-up zone defense that his predecessor John Chaney employed so successfully. Against this scheme Harden will have to beat his man to the basket, while Pendergraph exploits one on one matchups down low. The Sun Devils' sharp shooting can only be effective if the Owls decide to double team one of those aforementioned players.

The Owls are a deft passing squad who does quite well shooting the three, which can always pose issues to teams like ASU who exclusively play the zone. The Sun Devils' scheme could give room for Owls' star Dionte Christmas to operate, which is another factor to consider. In general, Temple isn't a team that has a hard time scoring down the floor and as mentioned they are on a roll.

NCAA Tournament Projection

I think ASU can overcome Temple, and it could be a grind out game if the Sun Devils can dictate the tempo. In that event, the Sun Devils will probably face another red-hot team, the Syracuse Orangemen, whose defense is a virtual carbon copy of ASU's. Syracuse is a more explosive squad than Temple, however if ASU's zone can slow matters down, as well as find success making their threes against the Orangemen's zone, then the Sun Devils stand a chance at advancing to the Sweet Sixteen, the stage where I feel that ASU's tournament run will come to an end, likely at the hands of Oklahoma.

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