On March 22, 2009, Arizona State's Ty Abbott made a three-point shot with 6:38 remaining in the Sun Devils' NCAA tournament game against Syracuse, pulling Herb Sendek's team to within four points of the Orangemen. A win that day would have put ASU into the Sweet 16, and that, to say the least, would have been a very big deal. Put it this way: the last time the Sun Devils reached the Sweet 16 (1995), Sendek was a second-year head coach at Miami OH.
Instead, Syracuse finished the game on a 17-10 run and won 78-67. Arizona State went home. That 2009 group, which was powered by James Harden and Jeff Pendergraph, was arguably the best Sun Devil team of the past 15 years.
And yet anyone who looks at how the Sun Devils have performed over the past three seasons has an odd paradox to report. Though Harden and Pendergraph both left the program after that Syracuse loss, Arizona State went 12-6 in the Pac-10 the following year and came within a whisker of making the NCAA tournament for a second consecutive season. In other words Sendek was able replace Harden and Pendergraph, but, judging from last year (4-14 in the Pac-10), he couldn't replace Eric Boateng and Derek Glasser, both of whom left after the 2009-10 season. Who saw that coming?
Which brings us to today. Though leading scorer Trent Lockett returns, Sendek is now faced with the prospect of replacing three mainstays from last year's team: Abbott, Jamelle McMillan, and Rihards Kuksiks. Losing three starters from a last-place team isn't customarily a recipe for notable success the following year. Then again the Sun Devils aren't necessarily looking for a Final Four run in 2012. Mere progress will suffice. Can ASU show improvement in the first year of the new Pac-12 conference?
First things first: ASU needs some defensive boards.
Any last-place team likely struggles on both sides of the ball, so it's no surprise to find that last year in conference play the Sun Devils had both the Pac-10's ninth-rated offense (only Oregon State was worse) and the league's ninth-rated defense (only California allowed more points per possession). That being said, the largest single difference between last year's 4-14 team and the 2010 outfit that went 12-6 was the defense, which permitted Pac-10 opponents to ring up 1.08 points per trip in 2011. In the space of one year Arizona State went from being the best defensive rebounding team in the conference to bringing up the rear. ASU rebounded less than 65 percent of their Pac-10 opponents' misses last year, and all those second chances took their toll on the Sun Devils. That has to change in 2012. Whether the defensive rebounds come from 6-7 Kyle Cain, 7-0 Ruslan Pateev, someone else, or all of the above, they need to come from somewhere.
Lockett has game.
He's not going to set the world on fire with his perimeter shooting anytime soon, but the 6-4 junior-to-be is a career 53 percent two-point shooter. Considering Lockett attempted most of those twos as the leading scorer on an offensively-challenged last-place team, that's a fairly remarkable figure. (He even overcame a sprained toe in the middle of his sophomore season.) If he ever gets some help Lockett should earn a lot more notice than what he's received to date. And speaking of help....
Jahii Carson has potential.
For years -- perhaps even decades -- Arizona State fans watched with mounting frustration as arch rival Arizona, located all the way out there in Tucson, came into the greater Phoenix area and scooped up the best local talent. So when Mesa, Arizona, product Jahii Carson announced his intention to become a Sun Devil, it was a sweet day for Sendek. The 5-11 Carson is billed as an attacking point guard and is commonly regarded as one of the two or three highest-rated recruits arriving in the Pac-12 this season. True, the track record of preceding elite freshmen under 6-0 is not uniformly excellent. If past experience is any guide fans in Tempe this year may see Carson record a lot of assists, yes -- to go along with an abundance of turnovers and plenty of missed two-point shots. But when those diminutive freshman point guards stick around they can go on to do big things. Signing Carson's a huge plus for an ASU program that at present needs every "plus" it can find.
Complaints about "style" correlate suggestively with losses.
Since Sendek arrived in Tempe in 2006, eight ASU players have elected to transfer out of the program. Combine that number with a 4-14 season and we find that the coach is taking some heat for playing a style that is allegedly too slow for today's "Notoreity now!" recruits. It's true that Sendek prefers a slow pace. Last year the Devils averaged 64 possessions per 40 minutes in Pac-10 play, making them slower than any team in the league except USC. Just keep in mind, though, that two years ago when Sendek had his team playing for a berth in the Sweet 16 the pace of play was significantly slower (59 possessions per 40 minutes in-conference) than it is now, and no one complained. I will hazard a prediction. If ASU somehow makes the 2012 NCAA tournament (big "if") and does so at the slowest pace they've ever played, you won't hear many questions about "style."
Arizona State has a great opportunity to make a splash early this year when they play in the 2011 Old Spice Classic. With just one 2011 NCAA tournament team in the Old Spice field (Indiana State), Lockett, Carson, and the rest of the Sun Devils will have a decent shot to capture some November buzz. For Sendek and ASU, a chance to rebound from last year can't come soon enough.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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