November 27, 2007

Different Sun Devil program now on display

Even though Monday night's game against Cal Poly was the second home opener of the Herb Sendek-era at Arizona State, the atmosphere in Wells Fargo Arena felt entirely brand new.

Certainly, the talent level is.

Last season, the Sun Devils stumbled in the season opener, losing to NAU 75-71. At the time, it was immediately apparent the team didn't have enough talent on hand to consistently compete against the upper echelon of the Pac-10 on a regular basis.

But with three freshman in the starting lineup for the first-team in the Pac-10 era, the Sun Devils opened with a 19-2 run versus the Mustangs, leading to a blowout 75-41 win -- its largest margin of victory in nearly three years -- in front of an announced crowd of 6,151.

"There were so many more fans and it was so much better," junior forward Jeff Pendergraph said of a lower bowl in the Arena that is sold out for the season -- though far from full on Monday -- for the first time in years.

"We were feeding off of them the whole time. We were getting tired and you could hear everybody cheering and clapping and yelling. Even though we're winning these guys were clapping and cheering."

Freshman James Harden led the Sun Devils with 15 points and 10 rebounds, the first double-double of his college career. Three others on the team finished in double figures as well, with Pendergraph scoring 14 points in 20 minutes, Derek Glasser pouring in 11 points off the bench, and Ty Abbott tallying 10 points.

The Sun Devils improved to 3-1 on the young season, and while there is a long way to go and much improvement to be made, they are displaying the potential that figured to be there after Sendek signed what was by all accounts a Top-20 recruiting class in his first full-year cycle.

Throw in transfer Eric Boateng, a sophomore who hasn't hardly played in the last two years, and the newcomers combined to play 103 of the 200 combined game minutes for the Sun Devils.

With so many new players and a complicated motion offense implemented by Sendek in the off-season, there are significant hurdles to overcome. But the Sun Devils will clearly be substantially improved over last season. How much better?

"A lot better," Pendergraph said. "We have a lot of experience to gain. We're kind of lacking in experience but once we can get some games under our belt, we'll be tough to handle, especially if we can get our defense to where we're going and then with our high powered offense, we can be a problem for a lot of people."

Sendek put a 3-2 matchup zone in place last season for the first time in his career due to a his team's lack of foot speed and athleticism and a surprising thing happened. The Sun Devils became very stingy on defense, limiting 17 of 30 opponents last season to 65 or fewer points.

Unfortunately for ASU, it didn't have the offensive talent to take advantage of the defensive success. ASU finished last in the Pac-10 in scoring offense and field goal percentage, and ninth in foul shooting and 3-point shooting. ASU (8-22; 2-16) went 3-13 in games decided by six or fewer points.

With all of its key players returning and greater athleticism, the zone defense should eventually be more impressive this season as it takes hold.

"Our defensive numbers against a very skilled, good shooting Cal Poly team, I thought were excellent," Sendek said. "That doesn't mean that we don't still have a good ways to go on that end of floor. We still are struggling to sustain the kind of great effort that you need and like we've talked about previously, that's not just a matter of wanting to, but knowing how to and developing that habit."

Cal Poly isn't a push-over type of opponent, but the Sun Devils were athletically on a different level, which bodes well for conference play and in stark contrast to last season.

"I had great respect and obviously still do for Cal Poly," Sendek said. "They had beaten a very good Utah State team by 14. Utah State just went to Iowa and won by double digits. We were very alert and aware coming into this game."

Fans too, should be alert and aware. With the improved level of talent and skill on display, Wells Fargo Arena could become an exciting place to watch college basketball games.

Witness the play of Boateng, who made three field goals in a quick explosion during the first half, including two skilled moves on the low block and a baseline hook shot.

Witness the passing of reserve forward Kraidon Woods, who found two players on backdoor cuts for easy layup opportunities.

Witness the transition defense of Abbott, who chased down a Cal Poly player from behind and elevated to block his layup off the backboard.

Witness the type of players that realize although they have tremendous potential, there is much more to accomplish, led by the most talented of them all, Harden.

"He's a talented young guy and he does so many things well," Sendek said. "The thing that's so great about James is, he knows he still has all these things he still has to work on. He's not someone who feels like, 'I've got this under control already.' He want to learn and when you point something out to him on film, when you show him something, he acknowledges it, he sees it and he understands it and then he goes about trying to get better at it and those are the guys you love to coach."

They're also the guys you love to watch.

They're the guys you want to root for.

They're the guys you will see make Sun Devil basketball matter again.

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