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November 10, 2012Even in the face of questions surrounding his job security, Arizona State boosters and local media have seen a lighter side of Herb Sendek this offseason.
Jovial and self-deprecating, Sendek has more closely resembled former Sun Devil coach Bill Frieder than the man who has earned a reputation around Tempe over the last six seasons as philosophical, perhaps even difficult to relate to.
In a Wednesday brunch with media, Sendek joked that, like ASU women's coach Charli Turner-Thorne, some may have thought he took last season off.
In light of how gloomy it's been around ASU basketball the last couple of years, some fans aren't likely to be in the mood for such attempts at humor.
Sendek is coming off the first back-to-back losing seasons of his 19-year head coaching career and is at a crossroads at the school.
After leading the Sun Devils to the biggest year-on-year turnaround in the win column in his second season at the school in 2007-08, and three consecutive 20-win seasons for the first time in more than 40 years, things turned sour.
ASU was a combined 22-40 in the last two seasons, saw nine of twelve scholarship signees over a two class period leave the program prematurely, and lost two assistant coaches, Lamont Smith and Scott Pera, in the offseason.
"I don't have a great need to defend or apologize at this point," Sendek said this week. "We spend a lot of time breaking that down, talking about it, and the larger purpose right now is to focus on this team today. We have evaluated things that obviously we all could do better. Those of you who have followed us closely, know we could also had to deal with a number of challenging circumstances. But I think the need to plow the ground that we have already gone over, has already lost its purpose, and the larger purpose is this weekend and our opening game."
With former NBA general manager Steve Patterson now at the helm of ASU's athletic department, and former NBA head coach Eric Musselman now on his staff, Sendek's job security seems rather tenuous. It would likely be even more so if not for what many have called a perplexing and unwarranted contract extension given to him in the summer of 2011 that extended his deal through June of 2016.
Sendek's hopes of a significant turnaround in 2012-13 largely rest on the diminutive shoulders of Jahii Carson, a 5-foot-10, 175-pounder who signed with the Sun Devils as a national consensus Top-50 prospect in 2011 but was unable to play last season due to an inability to qualify academically.
Throughout the summer months, Carson joined Sendek on conference calls with ASU season ticket holders and made the rounds on numerous local television and radio shows. Not only was it more exposure than any player in school history yet to play a game, it was perhaps more than any who had.
So it seemed a little like he was trying to have it both ways when Sendek appeared to walk back expectations put upon Carson in his weekly press conference Monday, in advance of the team's season opener Saturday at 5:30 against Central Arkansas at Wells Fargo Arena.
"Some of these mythological expectations, in essence aren't really fair to [Carson]," Sendek said. "I assure you when he comes out on Saturday, he's going to be wearing a Arizona State shirt and he won't be wearing an 'S' and a cape."
Make no mistake though, for ASU to contend in the Pac-12 and give Sendek any degree of comfort, Carson will have to be very good right away. Considering some current ASU players, speaking off the record, said they thought he was the team's best player last season when sitting out the year, it's not completely unrealistic.
"I definitely have a certain confidence and swagger about myself, I don't want to seem arrogant or cocky, but I have a confidence about my game, I have a confidence about my teammates' game and think that us coming on the floor together, not just myself, we can do something super."
With Carson's jitterbug ability to handle the basketball and move with quickness, ASU should look very different offensively, especially when coupled with other ball handlers, junior Evan Gordon and senior Chris Colvin, capable of playing on or off the ball in the backcourt.
The Sun Devils may look even more different on the defensive end, however, as they shift to being a primary man-to-man team for the first time since Sendek took the helm.
I like it a lot," senior forward Carrick Felix said of the change. "It gives everybody a chance to be themselves, to be free, and play their game. Defensively is where our bread and butter is. We all mesh together with the man-to-man defense. We all have a better feel for ourselves."
Felix could be best served by the addition of Carson, as the two played together in AAU basketball and Felix is benefited by more transition opportunities afforded by the pace Carson can play at.
Right now the coach has me playing the two, three, and four, which I think is great, but the one through four positions are the same," Felix said. "We are all out on the perimeter. We are all passing the ball, cutting, and going off screens. So, it's all the same, just making sure I run the court. I think that would be huge for me, running the court and rebounding for my team, being a vocal leader."
In addition to Felix, who averaged 10.5 points last season, ASU's best returning players from a productivity standpoint are sophomore forward Jonathan Gilling, junior center Jordan Bachynski and Colvin.
Gilling may have been ASU's best player down the stretch last season, was at his best in big games against Arizona and UCLA, and is an excellent passer and long range shooter.
Bachynski, a 7-foot-2 center, improved substantially over his freshman campaign, particularly in Pac-12 play, and is capable of taking another step forward due to his rare combination of size and mobility.
Perhaps more than any other player on the roster, Colvin has made an impression this offseason with his improvement according to a number of program sources. He's played well off the ball next to Carson in addition to backing him up, after showing well down the stretch last season in Pac-12 play.
Two transfers, Gordon, and sophomore wing Bo Barnes can shoot it from long-range and will be key players in the ASU rotation, with Gordon perhaps a starter.
In the post, senior Ruslan Pateev will likely back up Bachynski and freshmen Eric Jacobsen and Kenny Martin have each made position impressions in practice. Jacobsen, in particular, seems ready to play immediately at this level.
"We have a lot of guys who can compete now and play to win; a lot of good character guys like Jahii Carson, Bo Barnes, Evan Gordon, Jordan Bachynski, and Ruslan Pateev," Felix said. "They are all great guys, and just being around them every day I get to see the sense of urgency to win. With that, everything that we have going on now with our team is at a good spot."
But will it win more, and not just a little more, but a lot more?
The Sun Devils won 10 games last season and will need to do much better in the months ahead for Sendek to receive a vote of confidence from any unbiased observers.
When asked recently about expectations for this season, Sendek decided not to take the bait.
"Without getting into a whole lot of specifics, our primary goal is to have a program that we can all be proud of and easy to cheer for," Sendek said. "That pretty much covers a wide canvas of things and we do have a program that's easy to cheer for right now."
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