Friday, October 10, 2008

No. 15 Arizona St.: 2008-2009 Team Preview

2007-2008 Team Record: 21-13, 9-9 Pac-10 (t-5th)

Key Losses: Christian Polk (3.5 ppg)

Key Returnees: James Harden (17.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 3.3 apg), Jeff Pendergraph (12.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg), Ty Abbott (9.9 ppg, 3.6 rpg)

Newcomers: Johnny Coy, Taylor Rhode, Brenton Thomas, Virgil Sanders, Trent Anderson, Stephen Rogers, Nico Fricchione

Arizona State was one of the last teams left out of the NCAA tournament last year, but they return essentially their entire roster. When you talk about Arizona State, the first person you have to mention is James Harden. The Pac-10 was loaded with talented players like Kevin Love and OJ Mayo last season, so its easy to see why Harden flew under the radar nationally. Harden, however, was as productive as anyone in the conference. Harden has what I would term as "old-man's game". He is not all that athletic (although that picture may make you think otherwise), but he is extremely fundamentally sound. He knows how to use hesitations, fakes, and jump-stops to create space for himself to get a shot off and how to draw a defender (especially on penetration) and kick out to an open teammate. He is a very efficient player (53% FG, 41% 3's), is a fantastic shooter, and has a high basketball IQ. He isn't going to dunk over you, but he will slither his way to the basket and finish with a floater, finger roll, or runner that will leave you saying "how the heck did he make that?".

Arizona State has a slew of other talented guards. The best of the bunch is probably sophomore Ty Abbott, a late signee last year after de-committing from New Mexico. Abbott is a very good shooter (his 76 3's were fourth most by a freshman in Pac-10 history) and thrived off of kickouts from teammates. Derek Glasser will most likely get most of the starts at the point, but he is coming off of knee surgery in May, so Jamelle McMillan should also see a lot of time (they basically shared PG duties last season as well). They are very similar players, as both as good play-makers that can knock down an open three, but Glasser protects the ball better (59 t/o's in 912 minutes versus 43 t/o's in 484 minutes). Also in the rotation in the Sun Devils back court is Jerren Shipp, Josh's (UCLA) and Joe's (former Cal Bear) brother. Jerren, a junior, is a very capable scorer that kind of got lost in the shuffle with the addition of Abbott and Harden (he did start 16 games last year when the Sun Devils went small, with Harden at the four).

As good as the Sun Devil back court could end up being next year, their front court must improve in order for them to be better than a good Pac-10 team. They do have Jeff Pendergraph, a 6'9" bruiser inside. Pendergraph, like Harden, is a bit of a throwback player. He's not a combo-forward, as he is much more effective with his back to the basket, using a variety of jump hooks, drop steps, and up fakes to score. He's big, strong, and fairly athletic. But beyond that, the Sun Devil front line was thin last year, which helped lead them to being the second worst rebounding team in the Pac-10 (although they do play strictly zone, which is a much tougher defense to rebound and box out in). Eric Boateng, the 6'10" Duke transfer and former Mickey D's all-american, should benefit from the year getting used to the ASU system and hopefully can provide another force inside. Rihards Kuksiks came on strong towards the end of the year, scoring double figures in six of the last 12 games, but he is still more of a wing than an inside threat. His versatility is effective in Herb Sendek's system - he can mix it up a bit in the paint defensively, but he has the perimeter skills and jump shot to create a mismatch on the offensive end. Freshmen Johnny Coy (a 6'7" wing) and Taylor Rhodes (a 6'8" forward) should also compete for minutes.

Outlook: You know what you are going to get when you play Arizona State: a slow-paced game where you will have to defend for 35 seconds and beat a zone on the offensive end. Sendek has recruited well for his system, as he has a lot of guys that can do a lot of different things. James Harden is probably the preseason favorite for Pac-10 player of the year, and if the rest of the team can improve, Arizona State is looking at the most talented roster they have had in a long time. They aren't as good as UCLA, but a second place finish in the conference and advancing to the second weekend in the NCAA's is very possible.

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