Ever since the Arizona State men’s basketball team scored just nine points in the first half of play in a Feb. 27 game against Utah, Sun Devil fans have been holding their collective breath, hoping they could get through the rest of the season without another similar collapse.
They almost made it the rest of the way. Until the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament arrived and, with it, the next collapse. Not in the first half, but in the home stretch of the second half this time.
Leading the USC Trojans by 15 points going into the final 10 minutes of play, the Sun Devils, favored to win the contest, collapsed. There’s no better word for it.
This one wasn’t as ugly as the Utah loss, when the Utes took a 41-9 lead at the half and went on to a 83-41 rout. ASU shot 15.4 percent in the first half of that game while allowing the Utes to connect on 62 percent of their shots.
However, the final nine minutes and 45 seconds of the USC game were almost as ugly. That’s when the Trojans began an improbable run to a 67-64 victory as the Devils went stone-cold, connecting on just one of 11 shots down the stretch and allowing the worst team in the conference to score 21 of the final 25 points. ASU shot just 30.3 percent in the second half.
It was a particularly stunning loss for ASU fans because their team had won five of its last seven games, the only losses being the big 42-point hiccup against Utah and a six-point loss to Colorado in a game on the road that went down to the wire. There was also a huge upset win along the way over rival University of Arizona, ranked No. 6 in the nation at the time.
A team that lost its first four conference games steadily improved as the season progressed – and appeared ready for Pac-12 Tournament play.
But, on this night at least, USC was apparently more ready. Whether that was a shortcoming of the coaching staff, or lack of focus by the players, is up for discussion. However, it’s still a significant loss for a head coach still trying to push this program up the hill.
Herb Sendek has been a head coach for 22 years and has been a conference Coach of the Year three times and made 17 postseason appearances. He’s led the Sun Devils to five 20-win seasons in his nine years at the helm, including the last two seasons.
Those two teams made it into the postseason, earning an NCAA Tournament invitation in 2014 and a berth in the NIT in 2013. HOWEVER…they made it only as far as the second round of the NIT and were eliminated in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last year.
A 17-15 record this season may not be good enough to get this year’s team into either tournament. There won’t be an NCAA invite this year, and even a spot in the NIT field may be out of reach. It will be an agonizing week as the team waits for word from the selection committee.
In the meantime, Sendek also waits…hoping his bosses continue to give him time to crack the first round at the Big Dance so he can use that national stage to help a recruiting effort that still lags far behind his in-state rival to the south. Deep runs in the NCAA Tournament would at least help to offset some of the disadvantage that comes with using aging athletic facilities like Wells Fargo Arena to try to attract top recruits.
And without a step up in that incoming talent level, a deep run in the postseason will continue to be just beyond Sendek’s reach.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)