We've reached the halfway point of the Pac-12 basketball season, and the biggest surprise so far has undoubtedly been the success of Herb Sendek's Arizona State Sun Devils.
A quick glance of the standings will show the Sun Devils are 17-5 overall and 6-3 in conference play at the turn -- just one game out of first place with nine regular season conference games remaining.
There is talk of the Sun Devils crashing the Big Dance for the first time since 2009 (although Jerry Palm's latest projection has ASU on the outside looking in), but they'll have to at least match their first half Pac-12 performance to make up for what was a weak non-conference schedule that featured one team (Creighton) currently ranked in the RPI Top 100 -- and ASU lost to the Blue Jays.
Since we're at the midway point, I thought I'd take a look back at the first half of Pac-12 play for the Sun Devils. Here are some individual breakdowns.
Jordan Bachynski - The strides Bachynski has made in his overall game since stepping foot on campus two years ago are astounding. The 7-foot-2 junior currently ranks fourth in the nation in blocked shots (4.1 per game) and has racked up rejections without being in constant foul trouble. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more agile 7-footer in college basketball, but that fluidity hasn't totally translated to success on the offensive end. Bachynski still struggles to finish near the rim when he's not dunking the ball and once he receives the ball in the post, it's not coming out, even if he's double-teamed (only four assists on the season). Bachynski talks frequently about improving his rebounding, but it's still a work in progress. Against UCLA, he dominated the glass with 15 rebounds in ASU's win. But last Saturday in a loss at Washington, Bachynski looked flat-footed and was outworked by opposing bigs. Still, Bachynski has been a huge cog in ASU's success to this point.
Bo Barnes - Most were counting on a much bigger contribution from the Hawaii transfer, at least judging from ASU's marketing efforts leading up to the season. After canning 57 three-pointers for the Warriors in 2010-11, Barnes obviously can shoot the ball, but he's looked tentative on the floor in his limited minutes (76) this season, although he's starting to contribute with hustle plays in recent games.
Jahii Carson - Carson was academically ineligible last season and ASU suffered because of it. It turns out he was worth the wait. The Mesa High grad is one of the top freshmen in the country and he's proven to be one of the most difficult players to guard in the conference. Just ask Washington, who got lit up for 32 points in Seattle Saturday night. Maybe most impressively, Carson has taken great care of the basketball. The redshirt had just one turnover in 69 minutes of playing time on the Washington trip. Although he's not a great outside shooter, he's shown the ability to hit in clutch situations from behind the arc and his presence on perimeter defense has been key all season long.
Chris Colvin - Colvin has become an important piece for Coach Sendek, as he's one of the few contributors off the bench. That fact makes his three-game suspension for violation of team rules all that much more disappointing. The Sun Devils really struggled against Arizona with Carson in foul trouble for most of the game, and Colvin's absence was huge. I'm not saying ASU would have won the game if he were playing, but Sendek would have been much more equipped to deal with Carson's foul difficulty. Colvin has shown the propensity to get to the line, but must improve his free throw shooting in the last nine games. The senior is shooting just 21 percent from the stripe in the first half of Pac-12 play -- a number that's not acceptable for a big man let alone a point guard.
Carrick Felix - When national analysts talk about ASU, the bulk of the focus is on Carson. But Felix is the most important and valuable player on this year's team. When Felix plays well, ASU plays well. In the times where he struggles (which have been rare), ASU struggles. The Arizona game is a perfect example; Felix went just 1-of-8 from the floor with a season-high seven turnovers and the Sun Devils fizzled down the stretch in a 71-54 loss. But like the leader he is, Felix faced the media after that game, acknowledged his struggles and bounced back quickly, winning the third of his conference Player of the Week Awards the very next week in a sweep of USC and UCLA. You can make a strong argument that Felix is the Pac-12 Player of the Year at this point of the campaign.
Jonathan Gilling - The sophomore from Denmark has had an up-and-down season to this point. There's no denying that Gilling has become a very capable rebounder in his sophomore season -- he's averaging 7.0 rebounds per game after averaging just 1.8 per contest as a freshman. He's also to be commended for playing the four position, even though he's definitely a wing player, although teams may be starting to exploit that fact. Washington's Shawn Kemp Jr. was too much for Gilling to handle Saturday, going off for a career-high 18 points and six rebounds against the smaller Gilling. The shot hasn't been as consistent as many would have hoped for either. In the five games prior to the Washington contest, Gilling had hit only 27 percent (10-of-37) from the field. Maybe the Washington game was enough to shake him out of a shooting slump. Gilling has, however, made at least one three-pointer in 40 straight games dating back to last season.
Evan Gordon - The Liberty transfer has had a season of peaks and valleys as well. Gordon was more than solid in non-conference play, including a 29-point performance against Sacramento State. But in the early stages of Pac-12 play, Gordon looked lost. The junior scored three points in ASU's first three conference games, but then exploded in his next five, averaging 16.8 per contest. Gordon could be more aggressive -- he hasn't had a free throw attempt in the last three games and has played in ten games this season in which he hasn't stepped to the line. This is noteworthy because he's had four games of eight or more attempts.
Eric Jacobsen - The 6-foot-10 freshman from Hamilton High School showed early promise, especially in the two-game non-conference stretch against Sacramento State and Hartford during which he averaged 11 points and 7.5 boards per game. Since then, however, Jacobsen has only 10 points in the last 14 games as his playing time has dwindled. Jacobsen could be called on in the second half of Pac-12 play to spell Gilling at the four.
Ruslan Pateev - Pateev has had an interesting senior season so far. The 7-foot Russian has four DNPs on his record this season, but when he's called on to contribute, he's usually ready. Pateev played arguably his best game as a Sun Devil in an overtime win against USC, scoring eight points, grabbing five rebounds and rejecting three shots. You wouldn't know it to look at his career numbers, but Pateev has improved over his career. He's a pretty smart player and is a much better passer from the low post than Bachynski.
The rest of the schedule is pretty tough for the Sun Devils as five of their remaining nine games are on the road, including a three-game stretch at UCLA, at USC and at Arizona to end the regular season.
The home games are against Cal and Stanford this weekend, which promise to be competitive, and against Washington State and Washington in two weeks. The Sun Devils could feasibly win all four of those games and may need to be keep their tournament hopes alive.
If Arizona State can match their first-half Pac-12 record, they would have 23 wins heading into the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas -- and unless they can find a way to beat Arizona (who has a current RPI of 4) in the season finale, they'll be squarely on the bubble come Selection Sunday.
But that's certainly better than where they've been the last two seasons.