March 25, 2008

Sendek to face Donovan for first time

Close friends and former colleagues, Herb Sendek and Billy Donovan will coach against each other for the first time ever in their careers when ASU and the University of Florida face-off Thursday night in the quarterfinals of the NIT at Wells Fargo Arena.

The two disciples of Louisville head coach Rick Pitino will be coaching in the same arena for the first time since they worked on Pitino's staff at the University of Kentucky from 1989-93.

"He's one of my closest friends in life," Donovan said of his special relationship with Sendek. "I have the upmost respect for him as a man, a coach, and a person."

The Sun Devils (21-12) and Gators (23-11) share many similarities heading into this matchup besides the obvious coaching philosophies.

Clearly angered by not making the NCAA tournament, both ASU and Florida have been playing with a chip on their shoulder since the NIT began.

"We came into practice on Monday [after the NCAA selection show], and instead of being miserable we went to practice with a purpose," ASU junior forward Jeff Pendergraph said.

"We were there on a mission -- it's still another opportunity for us to prove something and it's a whole lot better than where we were at last year."

The Sun Devils turned the page by playing solid basketball on both ends of the court in the first two rounds of the tournament, beating Alabama State 64-53 and Southern Illinois 65-51.

"We're past that," ASU freshman swingman James Harden said of the selection committee's decision. "When we didn't get our name called a lot of us were down. But hey, we're still playing, we have Florida in the NIT and we're still playing for a ring."

With their focus set on beating Florida and advancing to the NIT's final four at the Mecca of basketball otherwise known as Madison Square Garden, the Sun Devils haven't had time to get caught up in the matchup of longtime friends within the coaching profession.

When asked if they knew about the relationship between Sendek and Donovan, several players from ASU who spoke to the media shrugged their shoulders virtually clueless of the coaching ties between the two counterparts.

Instead they offered opinions on what they needed to do to win the game.

And one after the next, each player quickly identified Florida's transition game as the most important aspect of the matchup.

"They love to run -- I think that's the big thing about them," ASU sophomore point guard Derek Glasser said. "We're going to have to stop their transition game. That's really how they get a lot of their buckets."

Not only will Glasser and Harden be responsible for getting back on defense, but they must locate Florida's own talented freshman scorer.

Leading his team with 15.6 points per game, freshman guard Nick Calathes presents a difficult matchup for the Sun Devils much like Harden does to opposing teams.

"It's probably a little bit of a similar situation for us as it has been for Harden," Donovan said of his own McDonald's All-American. "The thing about Nick is that he has a good understanding of how to play -- I think he makes people on the floor around him better."

Calathes' statistics certainly back those sentiments, making it a must for ASU to locate him on every possession as they get back on defense.

Along with scoring the most points on his team, Calathes leads the Gators and the SEC with 6.1 assists and is third on the team with 5.1 rebounds.

ASU head coach Herb Sendek knows just how dangerous of a player Calathes, and has thoroughly been impressed with Florida's performances in the NIT.

Calathes finished their last game against Creighton with 11 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists, making him the second player in school history to record a triple-double.

"I think they are playing as well as anyone," Sendek said. "It's obvious to me that if they were in the NCAA, they'd be capable of making another run -- they're that good."

When asked if they compare to other teams in the Pac-10 conference, Pendergraph and the others explained that Florida is similar to Oregon, because they run a lot and have five players on the court at the same time that can shoot the ball.

If the Sun Devils have spent most of the preparation on defending the Gators' transition game, Florida most likely will have spent their time getting acquainted with ASU's zone defense.

The Sun Devils have held both NIT opponents to under 32 percent from the field thanks in part to their zone defense.

"They've elected to be great in their zone," coach Donovan said. "I don't even look at it as necessarily as just a zone, as much as I look at it as they are one of the better defensive teams in the country."

That's certainly high praise coming from the two-time defending national champion coach, who has faced some of the top defenses in college basketball over the past few seasons.

Along with complementing the zone defense in which the Sun Devils rely on, Donovan had nothing but positive things to say about ASU.

From praising the development of Pendergraph, to the ability of James Harden to make his teammates around him better, Donovan saved his kindest words for Sendek.

"The job that he's done here is truly remarkable," Donovan said. "I've always been a big fan from the outside looking in.

"He does a terrific job, and I think the people out here in Arizona should realize that they have one of the brightest and best coaches in the country here. People should really understand what they have here in Herb."

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