Arizona State Sun Devils
Good wins: at San Diego State, BYU, at UCLA, at Arizona, UCLA, Arizona
Bad losses: Washington State
1. Defense. I saw first-hand this team’s amazing ability to shut down the transition game of the run-and-gun Washington Huskies in late February, even in a loss. Earlier this season they held the up-tempo Arizona Wildcats to 47 points at the McKale Center. In beating the Bruins in Pauley Pavilion, they held the Pac-10′s field goal leaders nearly 9 percentage points below their season average. The Devils’ stingy 3-2 matchup zone stymied BYU in their most important non-conference tilt as well.
2. Go-To Players. In James Harden and Jeff Pendergraph, ASU has two first-round NBA prospects. Harden can get his own shot nearly at will and is a ridiculously underrated defender. Though less athletic than Pac-10 counterparts Jordan Hill and Taj Gibson, Pendergraph is a beast in the paint and an excellent foul shooter. Both are tremendously clutch and difficult to double-team.
1. Inconsistency. Some games, the Sun Devils just don’t seem to have “it.” They match up well with nearly every team in the country, let alone the Pac-10, and get good floor leadership from Harden and backcourt mates Derek Glasser and Ty Abbott. But they were swept by a far inferior Washington State team, and at times they seem to stagnate at the offensive end. They rarely put teams away, and seem to play to their opponents’ level.
2. Tournament Experience. Combined with the above weakness, this could be a biggie. The Sun Devils were shunned by the NCAA Selection Committee in 2007-2008 due to their weak non-conference resume and as a result, Herb Sendek’s nucleus missed out on some valuable Tournament minutes. It’s simply hard to know how ASU will respond if their backs are pushed against the wall as a favored seed in an early NCAA Tournament round.
Bench: Jamelle McMillan (son of Portland Trail Blazers’ Coach and NBA veteran Nate McMillan) and Jerren Shipp (brother of UCLA’s Josh) provide solid backcourt backup. Neither is as explosive from the outside as his more famous family member, but they’re not exactly liabilities. Duke transfer and McDonald’s All-American Eric Boateng has had a disappointing career thus far but spells Pendergraph adequately when called upon.
The Departing: Harden will likely enter the NBA Draft (and be selected as a lottery pick) after just two seasons in Tempe and Pendergraph will graduate. While ASU’s shining stars will move on, their depth this year is underrated.
Although they lack NCAA Tournament experience, one factor tilting the Devils’ way is that they’re used to playing without a fan base — ASU fans rarely fill the Wells Fargo Arena. They can generate their own energy through their stingy defense and their excellent three-point shooting. This might be the hardest team to judge in the entire field. On paper, all the pieces are there for a deep run in March, and they’ve been my darkhorse Final Four team since before the season began. But I question their mental toughness and wouldn’t be surprised to see them lose their opening-round game, either.