That old puzzle master, Herb Sendek, may finally be fitting all the pieces together as a new Arizona State basketball season gets underway.
The Sun Devil head coach, in his seventh year in Tempe, has been trying to find a solution to a couple of inconsistent seasons that resulted in 12-19 and 10-21 records – a striking departure from the previous three seasons of 20-plus wins. Over the last two seasons he has used 23 different starting line-ups as has coped with injuries and other factors that have kept his roster in turmoil.
But this year he has a bonafide point guard, an intimidating presence on defense in the form of a 7-foot center that is cleaning the glass and blocking shots, and a supporting cast with experience. He also added a little insurance on the bench – a couple of new assistant coaches with NBA experience in Eric Musselman and Larry Greer.
The team’s 2-0 start is the best since the 2009-10 season when that team got off to a 4-0 sprint and went on to finish 22-11.
Tonight they take on Cornell in the second game of the Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational at ASU’s Wells Fargo Arena following a 79-64 win over Central Arkansas in the season opener, and a 97-70 thrashing of Florida A&M on Sunday.
Cornell is not likely to give them much more competition than the first two opponents. The Big Red won its season opener but is on a three-game skid since then and is having trouble putting points on the board as a result of 36 percent shooting from the floor and 29 percent accuracy from behind the arc.
Tonight is the first-ever meeting of the two teams, but Cornell has had little luck in the past with Pac-12 teams, going 2-10 all-time. The Big Red’s last win over a Pac-12 team came 20 years ago when it upset then-No. 19 California.
Conversely, ASU is 5-0 against Ivy League teams – and should push that to 6-0 tonight.
The biggest factors so far in the turnaround are the emergence of Jordan Bachynski, a 7’2″ junior whose ascent to an impact player didn’t begin until the final stretch of last year’s schedule, and the addition to the starting line-up of Jahii Carson, a four-star recruit out of Mesa High School who had to sit out last year due to an NCAA eligibility issue.
Carson’s arrival on the Sun Devil court has been much-anticipated since he changed his commitment from Oregon State as a sophomore and opted instead to play for Sendek. As a senior at Mesa High he averaged 32 points a game and set new school records for single-season scoring and assists. He came out ranked as the No. 10 prospect in the country at his position and was considered the top prospect in the state.
He was able to practice with the team last season, just not compete in games, so he is already schooled in the Sendek system and was ready to go from the first game of the 2012-13 season. The 5’11” high-flying human highlight reel is averaging 17.5 points a game and scored 20 against Florida A&M, to go with his seven assists.
Just two games into the season and his twitter account is buzzing with over 6,000 followers. And that buzz will translate into filling more seats in Wells Fargo – another important job of head coaches.
Bachynski played last year, but was a work in progress. He averaged just four points a game, but in the final 13 games he scored in double figures in seven games and contributed 26 blocks to the defensive effort. He scored 19 against USC and 20 against Stanford.
And he has picked up where he left off last season, setting a school record with nine blocks in the season opener, while nailing eight field goals and collecting 12 rebounds. Against Florida A&M he upped his offensive output to 14 points.
Since the lack of a true point guard was a major factor in the last couple of disappointing seasons, Sendek has added some depth in case Carson goes down with an injury. His back-up point, Chris Colvin, is a senior who transferred in last year from Palm Beach State and got some significant playing time off the bench late in the season.
Colvin gave the squad a boost off the bench in the first half of Sunday’s game with 12 points to help the Devils build a 45-32 halftime lead, and also helped seal the win in the opener by leading all ASU scorers in the second half of that game with Central Arkansas, scoring eight points.
Jonathan Gilling and Carrick Felix also return from last year’s squad and are making their mark on a new season. Gilling is a sophomore forward from Denmark who spent last season adjusting to the American college game, and Felix is a 6’6″ senior from Millennium High School in Goodyear who can swing between guard and forward. They each put up 13 points in Sunday’s game.
The Sun Devils actually have five players who have recorded double-digit scoring in the first two games, giving ASU a balanced approach to this year’s offense.
They’re getting the shots; they had 69 field goal attempts in the opener, just one shy of the most during the Sendek era. And they’re showing a defensive aggressiveness in the paint, recording 11 blocks in each of the first two games – again, the most for a Sendek-coached team in Tempe.
And, if all this wasn’t enough to make Sendek giddy over the prospects for a re-birth this year, his Sun Devils will enjoy one other slight advantage. They have 19 home games this year – only the second time in the history of the program that an ASU team has enjoyed that luxury.
Which, for the fans, means lots of opportunities to get to see what Sun Devil basketball can look like when all the pieces fit.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)