If you watched Herb Sendek sitting on the Arizona State bench last night, as the Arizona Wildcats were running past his Sun Devils, it was easy to think the ninth-year head basketball coach might have been having flashbacks to his time at North Carolina State.
During his 10 seasons as head coach at NC State, before accepting the ASU job in 2006, Sendek’s in-state rival was the Carolina Tar Heels, consistently one of the best teams in the country. His annual meeting with that rival was probably preceded by at least one sleepless night.
Now his nightmares revolve around a new rival, the University of Arizona, where Sean Miller has returned that program to its place as a national powerhouse in just five short years. The Wildcats made it to the Elite Eight at last year’s NCAA Tournament and began this season ranked No. 2 in the country.
And a succession of Top-10 recruiting classes the last four years means there isn’t an end in sight for Sendek’s heartburn.
ASU pulled off a stunning 69-66 upset of Arizona at the end of last season when the Wildcats were the No. 2 team in the country. But Arizona has won seven of the last 10 match-ups during the Miller era, too often by embarrassingly large margins.
Yesterday’s encounter with the No. 8/7 Cats was played in Tucson, which made it all the more intimidating. And the Sun Devils folded early.
By the time 2 1/2 minutes had ticked off the clock in McKale Center, the Cats were up 21-8 following a 15-1 run. By halftime, the lead had ballooned to 20 points, thanks to a lock-down Arizona defense and double-digit turnovers by the Devils. ASU committed 13 turnovers in the first half and 22 for the game.
Arizona shot 59 percent from the field in the first half, while holding ASU to just 40 percent. By game’s end, that statistic had turned even uglier for the Sun Devils, as they finished with just 33 percent shooting from the field and 29 percent from behind the arc.
And the Cats, who don’t normally count on three-pointers to get the job done, hit four treys in the first four minutes of the game.
Sendek tried to pull his troops together at the break and make some adjustments, but didn’t have the answer in the second half either as Arizona coasted to a 73-49 win in front of a packed house of 14,655 raucous fans.
It was a tenacious Arizona defense that kept the Sun Devils from getting into any kind of offensive rhythm. Ten of the 12 players that saw time on the floor for ASU managed to get on the scoreboard – but the Devils’ top scorer couldn’t get into double digits. Junior guard Gerry Blakes led the way with nine points.
The Cats had three players lead the way in the win, as Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Brandon Ashley, and Stanley Johnson each chipped in 13 points, and Hollis-Jefferson added eight rebounds to lead the team in that category.
After a shocking 71-67 loss to UNLV to close out the non-conference portion of the schedule – which was Arizona’s first loss of the season and ended a 39-game non-conference winning streak – Miller focused on offensive rebounding and free-throw shooting in the practices leading up to the conference opener with ASU. The practice paid off as the Cats out-rebounded ASU 33-23, including a slight edge in offensive rebounds as well, 8-6.
And Arizona (12-1) shot a very respectable 84 percent from the free-throw line. Oddly enough, so did Arizona State (8-6). Both teams went 16-for-19, although it made little difference in the outcome of this game.
Sendek will get another shot at his cross-state rival on Feb. 7 when the Wildcats travel to Tempe for a Saturday afternoon game that will be the finale in this year’s Territorial Cup series.
By that time, he may have come up with a better way to deal with Arizona’s stifling defense. Of course, by that time he may also be faced with an improved Wildcat team that has moved back up the national rankings.
In hindsight, that old Carolina Blue he left behind couldn’t be much worse than the Arizona Red he’s forced to deal with nowadays.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)