Here are 10 things we'll be paying close attention to when Arizona State takes the court for its home opener against Mississippi Valley State on Friday at 8 p.m.
1. Check out the new offense
This is Herb Sendek's third season in Tempe and the offense he has installed has been different in every year, in an effort to match a team up with its best chance for success stylistically. Sendek joked that during his first season ASU ran a pass-it-around-the-perimeter-and-shoot-with-one-second-on-the-shot-clock offense. It wasn't exactly that of course, but there wasn't much to work with and so not much of a dynamic look on offense. Last season ASU's motion offense evolved and there were more pro-style sets but there still seemed to be large stretches -- too large in fact -- where it was basically everyone clearing out for James Harden. We can expect to see a greater emphasis this year on attempting to convert turnovers into transition opportunities, as well as missed shots by opponents and even some made field goal attempts by opponents into quick baskets going the other direction. You'll see more of a traditional style of running the floor on the wings in the break and finding avenues to the basket. When there isn't a transition basket to be had, ASU will immediately go into one of any number of set plays, many of which are new. All of these plays essentially dead end into the team's motion offense after perhaps one-quarter or one-third of the shot clock.
2. Two bigs on the floor
Last season we almost never saw Sendek play Jeff Pendergraph and Eric Boateng on the floor at the same time. While ASU won't start both players at the same time this season, there has been a greater emphasis on putting offense in place that will allow two bigs to be on the court simultaneously. There is a limitation at both ends of the floor by doing it, and it will likely be reserved for certain matchup looks, but while last year it wasn't ever going to happen, this year it could happen a reasonable amount. You may also see Pendergraph or Boateng on the floor along with Taylor Rohde or Kraidon Woods.
3. Opening night starting lineup
ASU will start Jamelle McMillan at the one, James Harden and Ty Abbott on the wing, Rihards Kuksiks at the four position and Pendergraph at the five. McMillan earning the nod over Derek Glasser was the only spot that was really in doubt, and Glasser is questionable to play in the game due to an injury to a finger on his left, non-shooting hand. Glasser is a game-time decision. Even prior to the injury, it was looking as though McMillan would be the starter based on his reportedly strong play in practice in the last month.
4. Bench rotation
If Glasser plays, he'll of course be first off the bench at the point guard position. If not, you may see Harden initiate the ASU offense for 5-10 floor minutes. This is something the Sun Devils have worked on extensively in the last month, including in the team's scrimmages against New Mexico and UNLV. Harden is also willing and able to push the ball on the break immediately off missing baskets or turnovers in that role. Up front, Boateng will of course spell Pendergraph, and beyond that, Rohde will likely earn the most playing time. Jerren Shipp will likely be the first player off the bench on the wing, and his versatility allows him to play at the four position in support of Kuksiks. The primary ASU playing rotation will likely consist of (starters) McMillan, Harden, Abbott, Kuksiks, Pendergraph and (bench) Glasser, Shipp, Boateng, Rohde.
5. Newcomer performance
It wasn't entirely clear what to expect from ASU's two freshmen who signed with the program last year, upon their arrival, particularly considering the Sun Devils have significantly more talent and depth now than they did last year and especially two years ago. This isn't the type of situation where any freshmen are going to play a significant amount of minutes regardless of the prospects for their ability to be key players on the team in years to come. Rohde and Johnny Coy were signed with high expectations, but neither of them is necessarily vital to the team's chances of making an NCAA Tournament appearance. As it has turned out, Rohde is perhaps more prepared to earn game minutes than Coy as of the season opener. Rohde arrived on campus early in the summer and made significant improvement with his conditioning and body composition before ASU even began workouts when school started in August. He's picked up the concepts of what ASU is trying to do at both ends of the floor relatively well. Though he's not a naturally gifted athlete, he's extremely skilled with a knack for scoring and/or getting fouled when he gets the ball around the basket. It will be more interesting to see how he performance on defense and with rebounding. He's neither quick nor vertically inclined. He's just a smart, skilled player. Coy has a nice skill set, but he arrived on campus a little later than Rohde and didn't get quite as good of a jump start in terms of conditioning or picking up the offense and defense. He is actually perhaps a bit behind where we expected he'd be at this juncture based on what we have heard. However, that doesn't mean all is lost. The ASU staff was not particularly enamored with the development of Kuksiks early last season, and he's shown arguably the most improvement of any player on the team. Coy is unquestionably skilled; he just needs to continue to gain fluency with the system, and learn to play at a consistently high level. 6-foot-8 Stephen Rogers was given a scholarship for the year, but we don't expect him to earn much playing time. He is relatively fluid and mobile for his size, with the ability to shoot the ball to the 3-point line. He's probably a low-to-mid Division I prospect on a team that has nine or ten guys ahead of him in the rotation.
6. Most improved players
Based on all the information we have gathered, we expect the most improved returning Sun Devil this season to be either Kuksiks or McMillan. Both players have improved their bodies enormously. Kuksiks got much leaner and stronger in the off-season. Last year he showed flashes of being able to create a bit off the dribble, but he often couldn't finish those efforts in a successful way. That should be different this year, with added explosiveness and strength. McMillan had a very young look when he arrived last season and he's physically matured in the last year just naturally. He's also finally phased out that unfortunate-looking set shot from his perimeter game. He's only taking jumpers now, and the consistency with his result is much better. He's also improved his skill set in a broad manner, and is more of a presence on the floor at both ends.
7. The evolution of King James
OK, so not the King James -- that would be Lebron, of course. But in Tempe, it's pretty clear we're referring to Harden. He's the King and it's his court. Now widely considered to be one of the top five NBA prospects, Harden had a terrific off-season. He grew (up a half inch and five pounds while also dropping his body fat percentage) and matured, and so did his game. Harden knew going into the off-season he needed to take his conditioning to a new level, and he did. He knew he needed to further develop his off hand, and he did. He knew he needed a mid-range pull up jumper, and he worked on his extensively. It's time to see just how improved he is in those key areas. If it's significant, we could be looking at the best guard in college basketball, and he'll be wearing a Sun Devil jersey. Keep in mind, it wasn't that long ago ASU was the home of arguably the best post player in college basketball, Ike Digou. Getting one of those guys is special. Having two in a decade is almost unbelievable. At a school with a recent basketball history of ASU, it is unbelievable.
Let's face it, playing Mississippi Valley State at 8 p.m. locally on a Friday isn't exactly going to excite a lot of people more than the norm. Unless it does. ASU had 6,151 fans in attendance at its home opener last season against Cal Poly. We're going to know immediately tomorrow just what the real response is to this program in the community. The game is free for students with a Sun Card. Season ticket sales are up. A number like 7,000 would be pretty decent, 8,000 would be very good, 9,000 would be dramatic.
9. Recruits in the house
At least two recruits will be in attendance at Friday's game. Demetrius Walker, a 6-foot-3 guard at St. Mary's High School, the No. 112 recruit in the 2009 class, will be on hand. Walker, who moved to Phoenix earlier this year, committed to USC earlier in the recruiting cycle, but he's now also considering ASU as a possible destination. 2010 recruit Carson Desrosiers, a 6-foot-9 skilled forward from Central Catholic in Lawrence (Mass.) is coming to Tempe on his own dime along with his sister, who lives in Las Vegas. ASU has offered Desrosiers a scholarship and he's a priority target.
10. Pedal to the metal
Mississippi Valley State is the type of opponent ASU must obliterate. It's that simple. Any win counts in the win column, of course. But with two important recruits in the house and a chance to get playing time for younger players who need court experience, this is a game the Sun Devils need dominate in early and then run up the score.
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