Improved athleticism defines basketball team

ASU head coach Herb Sendek is thrilled about the seven newcomers who have joined the squad this year. Furthermore, he's eager to see how this group, along with a strong returning nucleus, can possibly redefine the schemes the team can now employ on both ends of the floor. The Sun Devil basketball coach talked about those topics and more in a media session held on Tuesday afternoon.

"We are very excited about our team going into next year," Sendek said. "We have a cast of returning players who have experience and who have continued to get better every step of the way, so we look forward to their continued progress.

"And then we have an injection of talent into our program with a really important recruiting class for us. I think we have a group of guys who have tremendous character. I think we have made our teams more athletic and I'm really looking forward to working with this group."

The ASU coach briefly talked about all seven members of the 2010 class:

Corey Hawkins – "He's a guard and notably, as everyone in our area knows, broke Mike Bibby's all-time scoring state record."

Keala King – "A very versatile player that had an outstanding senior year."

Jordan Bachynski – "He's over seven feet tall and really has grace and fluidity. He has tremendous hands and a nice touch. He hasn't played basketball in two years so it will obviously take him some time to get his basketball legs back under him, so to speak."

Chanse Creekmur – "He's an outstanding three-point shooter. A tough hardnosed competitor who played quarterback on his high school team."

Brandon Dunson – "He's an explosive elite athlete. He sets the mark high with his quickness and his jumping ability."

Kyle Cain – "A great competitor who plays hard, with a great motor and high energy."

Carrick Felix – "An athletic, versatile player."

Sendek admitted that landing players of the caliber of Cain (who was pursued by West Virginia and Illinois) and Felix (who got over 25 offers after being released from Duke) in the month of June is "unheard of."

"It was just the convergence of a lot of circumstances that made them available at a later date than usual," Sendek acknowledged. "We were fortunate to be in a position where we could recruit them and land them. Both of those guys bring length, athleticism and versatility.

"If you look at the athletic portion of our team across the board we have made progress in that area."

The ASU coach pointed out that from a sheer numbers standpoint several of the newcomers will have to make an impact in their first year.

"I think we have guys in this group that can do that," Sendek remarked. "How it all shuffles out it's obviously premature right now. But I have confidence in this group and likewise I have tremendous confidence in our returning players. The danger sometimes when you have a recruiting class that is as recognized as this one is for us, that somehow the guys who were with you are suddenly not talked about as much.

"From my standpoint, I'm relying on those returning players with their talent, experience and leadership to help drive this engine."

Sendek admitted that the team is young because it is a seven-man recruiting class, yet in some respects this group isn't "a true" seven-man class.

"We have guys in different classes coming into the group," Sendek explained. "We don't have seven first-year players or seven freshmen. Obviously we will have to get those guys up and running and inherited with the guys who are returning."

The improved athleticism of the team will require, according to Sendek, to approach the 2010-11 season with an open mind in terms of team philosophies.

"I think we have to be willing to put a lot of different considerations on the table," Sendek commented. "But not unlike any other year we always try to determine who we have and how do we best have to play to take advantage of their strengths. I think this year that is definitely necessary. We are going to take a step back, both offensively and defensively, and we're going to try and put those guys in a position to be successful.

"I'm really looking forward to that process. The most fun I have sometimes as a coach is in the spring, when I can study other teams, talk to other coaches…because no matter how many years you do it there is always more to learn. Just when you think you found the way there is a better way for your team. It's like when you read a book again different things reveal themselves that in the first read you didn't get or you see the same things in a different way. That's what coaching is for me."

As Sendek and his staff work towards meshing the seven new players into the team, he will undoubtedly rely on veterans such as Jamelle McMilan's to be integral in that process.

"It's impossible to put a value on experience and leadership and Jamelle brings both of those to the table," Sendek said. "His leadership has been a keystone for us and it will continue to be. With so many new guys on our team this year leadership will be at a high premium."

Sendek said that he didn't take it personally when four players decided to transfer out of the program at the end of the season. He said it's natural for players to want more playing time and thinks that players should have that right to leave.

"As in most things sports reflects our society," Sendek stated. "We talk about Gen Y all the time being a lease rather than a buy generation. People not only change jobs, they change careers multiple times by the time they are 30.

"Guys want to play and if they don't see a way for them to get themselves onto the court then there's probably a pretty good chance that they are going to look at opportunities at another level or another place. I don't know that this is always a bad thing. Sometimes the real answer for them is to get better, to have little perseverance and stick with it. Sometimes the answer is maybe go to a better place where they are a better fit and they have a better chance of playing.

"I want everyone who comes into our program to be successful and if that is the path that they need to take to be successful and do well then I am supportive of that."

The 2009-10 campaign was one of the most memorable campaigns in school history. The Sun Devils finished second in the Pac-10 (12-6) for the first time since 1980-81, and had won 20 or more games three years in a row for the first time at ASU since 1960-63, the only Pac-10 school to achieve that feat during that span.

Nonetheless, that season also ended with a very bitter taste.

A first round Pac-10 tournament loss to Stanford eliminated ASU's chances of returning to the NCAA tournament. Furthermore, the season ended with a heartbreaking buzzer beater loss at home to Jacksonville in the NIT opener.

"On selection Sunday, even though at that point I don't know if we expected to get in (to the tournament)," Sendek recalled, "the reality of not getting in when it hit home was a tough swallow for our guys. I know you're supposed to be mentally above that and you're supposed to rise to the challenge. Even though guys said the right things to come back and play home against Jacksonville, having being back at this building after the highs of beating USC and UCLA the last week of the season…to all of a sudden being right here to play Jacksonville I don't know that we put together the game to beat a pretty darn good Jacksonville team.

"I don't know if I spent a lot of mental energy and read too much into it. Given the fact that it's over and we have such a different team moving forward. Our guys won 12 games in the Pac-10 and had a heck of a run when you consider we were 0-2 and then won 12 of the next 16 games in the Pac-10. Guys had a heck of a conference season."

ASU's strength of schedule came under fire last year and some blamed the lack of quality non-conference opponents (coupled with a down year in the Pac-10) for ASU not getting an invite to the big dance despite winning 22 games.

The Devils' schedule this year shows a noticeable upgrade, playing at least six teams that won 20 or more games last year, with three of those contests taking place on the road. Sendek joked that the team felt "crazy" this spring when they put together the challenging out of conference slate.

"I'm sure we will be wondering what we did come November and December," Sendek quipped. "We play a very challenging schedule especially for the team that we have. Every single game we will have to play at our best to have a chance to win. Instead of being accused of not having a strong enough schedule, maybe we'll be accused of insanity.

"It's what our program needs now to continue to elevate our stature, to create a mindset with our Sun Devil community and our own players. It's what we need now. It may not have been what we needed last year or two years ago, but as we have gone through this evolution together I think it's what the Arizona State program needs right now. We need to be in the company of a really good schedule. Looking at the decisions the selection committee makes playing a tough schedule is the way to go. But you still have to win a lot of games."

The success that the program has enjoyed the last three years has translated for the most part into better crowd support and Sendek commented that he really likes the trajectory of that endorsement.

"I'm completely confident that in the very near future," Sendek said, "you will have a difficult time, if not an impossible time, getting a ticket."

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