January 15, 2009

Crucial three game road trip begins with USC tonight

With his No. 16 Sun Devils currently sitting at 14-2 overall and 3-1 in the Pac-10, you might think coach Herb Sendek would acknowledge that Arizona State's road trip to Los Angeles this weekend is particularly significant, especially when put in context of how far the program has come in two-plus years under his tutelage.

But that's just not the way Sendek operates.

"I don't know how you quantify wins," Sendek said, when asked if success against USC or UCLA would carry extra meaning. "In the end, each game represents 1/18th of your schedule. We'd love to be able to win. What it means beyond that is you've got to get ready for your next game after that."

Put another way, Sendek said, "It's (just) our next game."

Maybe Sendek doesn't presently want to look at in in these terms, but Thursday's game against USC, and even more so, Saturday's nationally televised game at UCLA, are an opportunity for the third-year coach to show just how much he's been able to accomplish in such a short period of time.

Two seasons ago, ASU went 8-22 overall, including 2-16 in the Pac-10. Last year, the Sun Devils improved in the win column more than any other major conference school in the country, finishing 21-13 overall (9-9 in the Pac-10) and just missed an NCAA Tournament.

This season? There is no doubt the Sun Devils appear headed to the Big Dance, baring a catastrophic injury to sophomore sensation James Harden.

Now, the Sun Devils are playing for seeding, and even the possibility of a Pac-10 Championship. How real of a possibility that is remains to be seen, and will largely depend on how ASU fares in its key three game road trip, which starts tonight at USC and carries through to next week's game at Arizona.

With a Top-10 Sagarin ranking, currently first in the Pac-10, it remains to be seen if ASU really is capable of making a last-to-first move in the Pac-10 over a three year period, but the next two weeks will certainly go a long way to providing an answer.

Los Angeles hasn't been historically kind to the Sun Devils, who have not won on the road against USC or UCLA since 2006.

"That's just a hard place to go," senior Jeff Pendergraph said. "A lot of guys are from LA so there are definitely a lot of distractions going home. It's not like you're going someplace and playing a so-so team. With these guys you need to leave here ready to play and a lot of times it comes back and kicks us in the butt.

'Both teams have really good home court advantages and they both hold home court really well throughout the season. I don't want to say they are any bigger than any other game because they're all big but I think a win on the road would be a big boost because not a lot of [teams] win in LA."

USC (10-5 overall; 1-2 in Pac-10) is a scrappy opponent that has given ASU some of its most physically intense, emotional games in recent years. The Trojans feature one of the league's top backcourts with Daniel Hackett and Dwight Lewis, a top frontcourt standout in Taj Gibson, leading the league in shot blocks and second in rebounds, and a star freshman wing in DeMar DeRozan, who has scored doubled figures in each of his last 10 games.

"I think they're a very talented team. I think they're a very good team," Sendek said. "They play outstanding defense. They're very physical on defense, very tough. I even think back to the first game last year of the Pac-10 Tournament where James (Harden) went to cut to the basket and boom, (he was knocked) right to the deck. They're a physical, tough defensive team and hard to score against.

"They do some different things but by and large they play really good man-to-man defense. They don't have any weak links on defense. They have five strong, athletic, tough guys at all times. They're long. I think Taj Gibson does a tremendous job anchoring their defense in the post. They're able to guard the ball effectively which is always a cornerstone for a good defensive team. They're hard to score against."

"They rebound really well," Pendergraph said. "Taj is doing a crazy-good job this year rebounding. It's insane. They can shoot the ball. I haven't heard too much about DeRozan but I know he's going to be a threat regardless. You're not a five star recruit for no reason. They're going to still be a threat. It's not O.J. but it's still USC, Tim Floyd is still Tim Floyd. He's cooking up something. Some NBA pro offense type of deal and trying to figure out how to guard. It's always interesting playing them because they don't play like anyone else."

ASU has been challenged this year on occasion, with several tough non-conference opponents and a road trip to the Bay Area to take on then-undefeated Stanford and a hot-shooting Cal team, but this week's games carry even more significance to just about everyone other than Sendek. Including Pendergraph.

"I think the next two weeks is going to be pretty crucial," Pendergraph said. "To get to the tournament you've got to win on the road. This is a nice road stretch for us. These are three big road games. If we want a chance to go to the tournament we're going to have to try to find some way to pull them out. I'm pretty confident going but anything can happen any given day. We just have to play hard and see what happens and where that goes."

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