Updated Jan 29, 2013 - 5:06 pm
People are talking about ASU basketball, and it's about time
To his credit, Herb Sendek did something few coaches in Arizona State history have ever done, especially in the last 20 years: He made the Sun Devils nationally relevant. Still, James Harden's 2008-09 All-American campaign was the first and only time Sendek has taken ASU to an NCAA tournament, and following last season's 12-19 finish, his program desperately needed a step back toward the light. Instead, things have only worsened. Touted freshman Jahii Carson never suited up after being ruled ineligible by the NCAA, and halfway through an already bad season, leading scorer Kaela (sic) King was suspended and eventually dismissed for a variety of reasons, most of them to do with attitude. As such, the Sun Devils are 8-17 overall and 4-9 in one of the worst editions of the Pac-12 we've seen in decades. They sport losses to Pepperdine, Northern Arizona, Fresno State and a 64-43 drubbing at the hands of Utah (it's true). Sendek was always underappreciated at NC State, but if the fans in Tempe start to become restless, well, they have their reasons.
What a difference nearly a year makes, huh?
After last Saturday's 78-60 drubbing of a UCLA team that had been 12-1 in its previous 13 games, Sendek's Sun Devils are creating some buzz around the nation.
Senior Carrick Felix was named the Pac-12 Player of the Week for the third time this season for his role in ASU's sweep of the Los Angeles schools.
Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports Network believes that the Devils are indeed an NCAA Tournament team.
Jahii Carson is garnering attention as a possible Freshman of the Year, and Dickie V himself proclaimed ASU center Jordan Bachynski a star after he ran roughshod over UCLA with 22 points, 15 boards and six blocked shots.
A STAR IS BORN- ask Ben Howland about 7'ft Canadian Jordan BACHYNSKI-dominated UCLA 22 -15 reb 6 b/s 4 ASU - Herb Sendek 16-4 @dshulman_espn— Dick Vitale (@DickieV) January 27, 2013
The man at the center of the turnaround isn't Felix, or Bachynski or Carson -- sure they've all helped.
Remember the nearly collective groan from Tempe when soon-to-be former athletic director Lisa Love gave Sendek a contract extension last December when the Sun Devils were 3-5 with losses to Pepperdine, Fairfield and DePaul already on their ledger?
Remember the criticism of Sendek's seemingly vanilla coaching style after another losing campaign was punctuated with the departures of a handful of players from the 2011-12 squad including team leader Trent Lockett and starting forward Kyle Cain (not to mention King)?
Remember how late in the offseason Sendek filled out his coaching staff with former NBA assistants Eric Musselman and Larry Greer? It was September.
Pac-12 media members thought the losing would continue in Tempe, as they picked the Sun Devils to finish 11th in the conference in their annual preseason poll.
Consider the success ASU has had to this point, and it leads to one conclusion: Herb Sendek and his staff are coaching their rear ends off. And a big part of that has to do with the flexibility Sendek has shown in changing his style. For years, you knew what you were going to get when you watched ASU play -- a tough, matchup zone defense and a deliberate offense that struggled without elite talent.
With Carson in the fold, Sendek promised an uptempo style of offense, and his team has delivered. Last season, the Sun Devils' 61 points per game ranked 304th in the nation. This season, despite a severe lack of depth, the Devils are averaging 73.3 points per game -- good for 50th in the nation.
On the defensive end, the switch to a man-to-man defense should not only quiet critics who say elite high school players who want to get to the NBA won't consider ASU because nobody plays a matchup zone at the pro level.
Having two coaches with NBA experience on their résumés doesn't hurt things, either.
This is not a proclamation that Arizona State will win the Pac-12 or that they're definitely an NCAA Tournament squad -- there is a lot of basketball left to be played.
But flexibility has led to a competitive and entertaining style of basketball which has Arizona State on the road to relevance -- somewhere they haven't been for quite some time.
Vince Marotta, Co-host - Bickley & Marotta, Web Content Editor - ArizonaSports.com