Arizona State's 13-game turnaround in wins last season was unsurpassed by any program in college basketball and yet the Sun Devils just missed out on one of their ultimate goals: an NCAA Tournament berth.
Their exclusion from the field was somewhat controversial, with some analysts even suggesting the Sun Devils were the first team left out of the tournament by the NCAA Selection Committee.
Although they went on to win two games in the NIT Tournament to cap a remarkably successful 21-13 season, the snub left ASU wanting more, and ultimately contributed to decisions made by senior Jeff Pendergraph and sophomore James Harden to return to school for another season.
Recognizing the team's entire late-season rotation would be returning, and most conference foes would have to replace key segments of their team also weighed heavily, according to both players.
"It seems like everybody and their moms left for the draft," Pendergraph said. "There's nobody left. And with us making this decision to stay here, it's the opposite. We have everybody back from a team that was pretty good last year, but nowhere as good as we could be this year if we do what we're supposed to and take care of business."
"For me it was not being one of those one-and-done guys," Harden said. "I wanted to help build up a program. Lately in college basketball guys are just going to school for one season and there's no good teams like that. It's Jeff's senior year, I wanted to be here. I know we have a good team, the same team coming back, a lot of guys around the country have left and it's going to be an exciting year."
With Harden and Pendergraph, the Sun Devils are the only team in the Pac-10 that has two all-conference performers returning.
Pendergraph, a 6-9 power forward/center from Etiwanda, Calif., earned Third-Team All-Pac-10 honors last season as a junior after averaging 12.4 points and 6.4 rebounds. He's one of just six all-league players returning for the 2008-09 season.
In each of his three seasons in Tempe, Pendergraph has averaged double figures in points, and he needs 367 rebounds this season to tie a school career record.
Harden, a 6-4 guard from Los Angeles, Calif., was the youngest freshman in the Pac-10 last season after a stellar prep career at Artesia High School which included a state championship and McDonald's All-American selection.
As high as expectations were, Harden surpassed them. He averaged 17.8 points and 5.3 rebounds, earning Freshman of the Year and First-Team All-Pac-10 honors.
The other four players who earned that recognition are all on NBA rosters now, and Harden is widely considered to be the best returning player in the league. He spent his off-season taking summer school classes and occasionally traveling around the country to several high profile basketball camps, where he drew rave reviews from scouts and analysts in attendance.
"I think I learned a lot my freshmen year," Harden said. "I learned about playing on the road, knowing how to recover from a Thursday night game and getting back physically and mentally for a Saturday game. It's just knowing the ropes so now I know how to practice different and also I can be more of a leader of this team with Jeff."
Third-year ASU coach Herb Sendek knows he has, in Pendergraph and Harden, two student-athletes who personify that term about as well as any star college players can. Both players are high achievers off the court as well as on, with Pendergraph scheduled to earn a degree in Economics in December of 2008, and Harden managing a grade point average that is well above average for a regular student much less a guy who could have bypassed his sophomore year and likely been a first-round NBA selection.
"We wanted them to assess their situation independent of what others were doing and make a decision that they felt was in their personal best interest," Sendek said of the players' decisions to return to Tempe. "In order to do that you have to have real confidence in yourself, you have to believe in yourself. I thought both guys handled themselves extremely well going through the deliberation process and obviously we're elated to have them bac,k but at the same time we always want our players to advance themselves in a way that is in their best interest."
Sendek and ASU fans are fortunate both players care enough about their school, their community and their teammates to have stayed.
For me it's like, 'I was this close to going but I'm back here and now I've got to prove a point to why I came back and make progress and do what I've got to do for the team,'" Pendergraph said. "I didn't have as good a year last year as I expected from myself. Every day that's the motivation to want to break the school rebounding record, get in the (NCAA) Tournament; but not just get in it, we want to make a run."
"I think last year we played as a team but me and Jeff didn't have that extra connection," Harden said. "This year is going to be different. I'm going to know where he's at all the time, especially when I drive, just have a feeling for each other better this year than last year. And that's how it'll be with our team I think. Last year we just did our defense, did our offense. This year we're much tighter, we know each other so much better, we're such a close family. It should take us to a different level."
One thing seems certain. After a 20-win season and 13-win improvement, and with the entire core nucleus returning, opponents are no longer going to be taking ASU lightly just because of the name on the jersey.
"With what coach Sendek's been doing, you can tell immediately the impact he's had here and how the whole program just hasn't gotten better, how it's transformed," Pendergraph said. "It's not like ASU basketball now. It's Sun Devil basketball. We're out there now. We're not the little school the Pac-10 used to beat up on and get a guaranteed win every year. We're now the team that is like, 'Dang, we've got to go play them?' It's a total 180 degree turnaround."
This story was featured in the October issue of Maroon and Gold Illustrated Magazine, an independent publication that is not affiliated in any way with the Sun Devil Club or Arizona State University athletic department. For more information on this publication, plese e-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org
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