Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Yes We Can!

2008-2009 Men's Basketball Season Preview

After enduring one of the worst football recessions in the collective memory of ASU fans, it’s time for change. We need a team that can inspire the nation! We need a team that can offer hope to the common fan! We need a team that has not been corrupted by years of NCAA experience and policies! Can you feel the excitement?! Well America (or maybe just Arizona), we have found that team. A team that you can follow into conflict and feel confident about. A team that you know will make the correct decisions in times of need. A team that will bring young people and old people together under a common cause. This team is an unlikely hero. A young, fresh team that gained recognition at the 2008 NCAA Selection Show and started a buzz across the United States. A team that has gained momentum among the talking heads in the media and offers an overwhelming message of hope. Who is this team? Your 2008-2009 ASU Men’s Basketball team!!

Now you may be saying to yourself, “Wow T.J., that was a bit overzealous. Maybe you should sit down before you hurt yourself.” If so, you’re probably correct, but after six straight games of ASU football where I felt like an altar boy leaving a private meeting with a priest, I deserve something to get excited about. (Okay, that analogy was a bit extreme and most likely offensive but it got the point across didn’t it?) Anyway, basketball season is just around the corner and ASU fans should be reminded that we have something to be proud of. Recently, as I was talking to a friend about ASU football, we were discussing the (strong) possibility that we would lose to Arizona in football this year and we realized that this may be the first time since 1769 that ASU fans would be the ones chanting, “Wait ‘til basketball!” at that game. As sad as that thought is, the truth remains the same: ASU basketball is primed for its best season in years, and unlike football, this team is for real.

Bringing back its top eight players, including all five starters, ASU is looking to improve upon the 2007-2008 season that saw the Sun Devils start off slow but make giant leaps in progress, finishing the season 21-13 and unfairly shut out of the NCAA Tournament. Coming off such a season, with an excellent coach, and a load of returning talent, it’s no wonder that ASU is finally receiving national media attention. Of course the main reason for this is one James Harden.

ASU’s most prized athletic possession spent the summer not only working out with - and impressing the likes of - Paul Pierce, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James, but also has been accumulating media accolades. Gracing the pages of Sports Illustrated, SLAM, Athlon, POST, Sporting News, and any other basketball publication known to man, James Harden has officially arrived. Flying mostly under the radar last year, James Harden had one of the greatest freshman seasons in ASU history. One can understand how Harden may have been lost in the Pac-10 shuffle last year among O.J. Mayo, Kevin Love, Jerryd Bayless, and all the other conference players drafted last year. What some may not understand is how good this guy actually is. If you somehow missed the entire season last year and didn’t get to see Harden play, go ahead and invest in some season tickets or ESPN Full Court so you can see him play every game this season.

Coming off a freshman season, where he averaged 17.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 3.2 apg, and 2.1 spg, James Harden is poised to take the nation by storm. Look for his statistics to improve across the board as he heads into his second season under the tutelage of Herb Sendek. There were times last season where Harden sat back and unselfishly tried to let his teammates lead the team. I expect that we will see a more aggressive offensive game this year from Harden. The great thing about Harden though is that his game never seems forced. It doesn’t ever appear that he’s struggling or over-exerting himself. The game flows naturally through him and he can simply take over in the clutch. All of those overtime wins last year? Mr. Clutch himself took over each of those and led the Sun Devils to victory.

While Harden has been named as a pre-season All-American by several publications, the Sun Devils have also been subject of media attention. Since there are more pre-season basketball rankings than there are celibate ASU freshmen, the Devils have been ranked anywhere between #12 and #25, depending on where you look. The reason for ASU achieving its second highest AP pre-season ranking (#15) in school history, is not just James Harden. Along side Harden comes six more returning starters. That’s right, ASU has seven returning starters. How does that happen? Well, depending on the game, Harden, Jeff Pendergraph, Ty Abbott, Jerren Shipp, Derek Glasser, Jamelle McMillan, and Rihards Kuksiks all started a number of games last season. All of these players are back and should see significant minutes this year. It is rare that a team returns its top seven guys, so let’s take a minute to look at each.

James Harden

I’ve already said plenty about this young stud, but really I could write articles for days about how good he is and how key he will be for the Sun Devils this year. Teams will be keying on him even more this year so his numbers may be harder to get but there are several things working to his advantage. First, the Pac-10 is weaker this year than it was last year and he should thrive in conference play. Second, with his supporting cast being much more experienced this year, they should be able to keep defenses a bit more honest, allowing him more freedom. Finally, with a summer of working with the aforementioned Bryant, Pierce, and James, along with brilliant coach Herb Sendek, James Harden is just that much better coming into this season.

Jeff Pendergraph

The senior big man should be a perfect complement to Harden’s swing game. A mobile big man with excellent defensive capabilities, Pendergraph should be much more comfortable this year as he is no longer looked at as ASU’s first option. In the past, he was the go-to man and I found him to be somewhat underwhelming. For a guy that has had NBA buzz in the past, I’ve always been left wanting more out of him. While he has been continuously solid for the Devils, averaging 12.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg, and 1.6 bpg, he has not been as good as he could be. He sometimes looks as if he is unsure of his footwork in the post, which worries me for a guy that could potentially dominate the post every night. Of course, I am being very critical as Pendergraph has a lot of great things that this team needs. Pendergraph is a strong shot blocker and is the emotional leader of this team. He is a guy that clearly wears his emotions on his jersey and when he is fired up, the Devils are a much better team. In games where Pendergraph scored early, he was much more effective as he was able to gain comfort early in the game before his emotions could start playing with his head. If Pendergraph can average close to a double-double and stay out of foul trouble, the Devils should have a good chance to win every game this season.

Ty Abbott

The sophomore shooting guard should be the X-Factor for the Sun Devils this year. One of the streakiest shooters I’ve ever seen, if he is able to be more consistent from the outside, he should be able to keep zone defenses in check and open up Harden for more man-to-man coverage. While Abbott was often great from behind the arc, what I really wished he did more of was slashing to the basket. He did this on rare occasions last season and showed some skill that I think could be better utilized. If Abbott and Harden both had the green light to slash inside, they would open each other up for outside shots and could collapse the defense to give Pendergraph open looks as well. My biggest hope for this season may be that Abbott opens up his offensive game and gains a bit more consistency from three point range.

Derek Glasser

Excellent at protecting the ball, Glasser has proven himself to be a very reliable floor general. With one of the best assist-to-turnover ratios in the nation, Glasser works mainly as the man that brings the ball up, sets the offense, and then gets out of the way for the scorers to operate. While Glasser doesn’t shoot much, he has shown the ability to knock down shots when needed. A smart ballplayer, Glasser’s best asset is his consistency and his willingness to operate as an unsung hero. There were several games last season where his ability to do all of the little things on the court ensured ASU victory. Don’t expect much difference in his numbers this year, but another year of experience should serve Glasser and the rest of the team quite well.

Jamelle McMillan

A true coach’s son, McMillan showed great ability to pick up the offense quickly last season and worked his way into the starting lineup early on in the season. While his numbers don’t jump off the page, McMillan is a good defensive complement to Glasser and should improve across the board this year statistically. It should be interesting to see if McMillan begins to take over any more of Glasser’s minutes this year. Glasser was the PG at the end of games last season and if McMillan continues to improve, Sendek could have a good dilemma on his hands this year when it comes to point guard.

Jerren Shipp

With the exception of his ASU debut, Shipp has been almost exclusively a quiet role player. Shipp has the ability to score in several ways, but seems content to live in the shadows of Harden and Pendergraph. Shipp comes from a family of ball players and has a good basketball IQ. He is many times asked to play as an undersized post player and has done reasonably well defending opposing bigs. Shipp does a lot of the things that don’t show up in the box score and is an important part of this team.

Rihards Kuksiks

The Latvian-born sophomore came on strong at the end of last season and gained a lot of minutes as the season wore on. Kuksiks is the second-best returning outside shooter after Harden. Kuksiks is another guy that will benefit largely from logging significant minutes as a freshman and should show marked improvement this year. If his defense improves, he will find himself on the floor in clutch situations.

The Rest

Eric Boateng – I left him off of the key returning guys because, well, he has been a huge disappointment. At times last year he was so bad that a friend and I started calling it “pulling a Boateng” when someone did something dumb on the court or turned the ball over. With his size, he really gets your hopes up but he just hasn’t come through. ASU could really use him to give Pendergraph a break in the post but he has been mainly a liability. Any improvement out of him would be huge for the Devils.

Kraidon Woods – I want so badly for him to be good. He is one of those guys that you love watching because he has so much raw potential but also hate watching because he just hasn’t realized it yet. Still one of my favorite players on the team, but for no good reason.

Johnny Coy – The Devils’ top recruit this year had some buildup but I don’t anticipate seeing much of anything from him this year. Sources have told me that he has been unimpressive in practice and not the shooter he was expected to be. Don’t get your hopes up here. That being said, I would love to be wrong.

Taylor Rohde – A Phoenix product and very similar to Johnny Coy in body type and high school statistics. I think Rohde and Coy will be the only freshman with a chance to play any this year and should get buried on the bench once the conference season begins.

After looking through the roster and knowing how the Devils performed last year, it’s easy to see why pundits have chosen ASU to finish second in the Pac-10 this year. UCLA is still clearly above everyone else in the conference, but the Sun Devils should be able to beat everyone else in the conference. I even expect that ASU could give the Bruins a run when they come to Tempe this year. Look for ASU to win 25-26 games this year and easily make their way into the NCAA Tournament. Without having seen them play a minute this year, I’m calling at least a Sweet Sixteen berth. The only thing that worries me is ASU’s glaring lack of post depth but thankfully the Tournament is dominated by guards and wing players and the Sun Devils just so happen to have one of the best in the nation.

ASU kicks off the season this Friday, November 14 at home against Mississippi Valley State. The game begins at 8pm. Continue to check out Pitchfork Nation for analysis throughout the season and I’ll be back with improved podcasts as the season gets going.

Sun Devil Basketball. Yes we can!

1 comment:

Nick Saia (usa) said...

finally something to get excited about.