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March 26, 2012

Sendek era reaches critical stage

In the spring of 2009, as Arizona State basked in the afterglow of a James Harden-led 25-win season that re-shaped the possibility of its program, its staff became emboldened. To use basketball parlance, it was time for a heat check. Herb Sendek and his assistants forged out nationally, offering scholarships to more than 20 of the top recruits in the 2010 class from across the country.

In June, just days before Harden would become the school's highest ever NBA Draft pick, ASUDevils.com traveled to the University of Virginia campus where the NBA Players Association Top-100 camp featured nearly all of the nation's best recruits. At the time, ASU was involved with more than a dozen participants, a number of whom - Daniel Bejarano, Anthony Brown, Carson Desrosiers, James Johnson, Alex Kirk, C.J. Leslie and Will Regan among them -- would visit the school's Tempe campus at some point.

All told, the Sun Devils would be visited by no fewer than a dozen high profile recruits from the class, and sign just one, Keala King, the Nation's No. 26 ranked prospect. The similarities between Harden and King were easy to identify. Both are left-handed shooting guards standing 6-foot-5 from the Los Angeles-area who were five-star prospects out of high school. It seemed reasonable at the time to conclude that because Harden had helped position ASU for its first three consecutive 20-plus wins seasons since 1961-63, with King in the fold and the program's somewhat elevated status, the future would remain bright.

Two days after King signed his Letter of Intent the Sun Devils kicked off their 2009-10 season. Even after back-to-back 20 win seasons and a core nucleus returning, an assortment of polls and pundits projected ASU to finish near the bottom of the Pac-10 following the departure of Harden and 6-foot-9 power forward Jeff Pendergraph to the NBA.

They heard the questions throughout the off-season. Who is going to score the ball? After all, the Sun Devils had lost half of their scoring. Who is going to make plays in the clutch? Clearly, ASU no longer had its go-to weapons.

The Sun Devils had lost their marquee stars but what remained in place was a veteran core of experienced players and something even more important: a culture of success. Led by senior point guard Derek Glasser, a player who had no BCS scholarship offers before becoming one of Sendek's first two signees -- and eventually the program's all-time assist leader -- the Sun Devils overachieved all expectations save their own.

"We finally learned how to win," Glasser said prior to the season, foreshadowing what others seriously doubted. "Once we learned how to win, everything changed. That's why I think people underestimate us this year. We lost Jeff and James and that's like [half] of our scoring or whatever, but we return everybody else from a team that won a lot of games. We're still the same guys. Our goal is to go 11-7 in the Pac-10 and 11-2 in the preseason, which is 22-9 going into the Pac-10 Tournament."

ASU's final regular season record: 22-9 (11-7).

Though the Sun Devils would become the first-ever second place team in the Pac-10 to miss the NCAA Tournament -- primarily due to a weak conference RPI -- Sendek would go on to earn Pac-12 and USBWA District IX Coach of the Year honors. Most importantly, he did so with Glasser, Duke transfer Eric Boateng, and a collection of complimentary players who were by and large realistic, team-centered and hard working. But even as its identity became clear, Arizona State's core fabric was beginning to unravel from within.

The Sun Devils targeted and successfully landed Taylor Rohde and Johnny Coy in the 2008 signing class, two players who seemed to fit their identity but would prove to be recruiting misses. Rohde, who would go on to a successful career at Division II Alaska Anchorage, was athletically limited. Coy, who struggled to adjust to college away from his family support system and had an ill father, transferred to play baseball at Wichita State.

After signing Rivals150 prospects Trent Lockett and Demetrius Walker and 7-footer Ruslan Pateev in the fall of 2009, the Sun Devils found themselves with unused scholarships in the spring due to the early NBA declaration of Harden and premature departures of Coy and Kraidon Woods, ASU's lone transfer out of five signees in the 2007 class.

As a coaching staff, it's difficult enough to identify and procure high quality talent that is also the right fit for a your program when you have a full year or more to do so. In the compressed time between the conclusion of a season in March - or whenever a staff learns of an impending transfer - and the start of the spring signing period in mid-April, it's significantly tougher, particularly considering there is generally less talent to be had than during the fall signing period.

This is one of the problems that has helped accelerate what has become a transfer epidemic across the landscape of college basketball. The more transfers there are, the more there will inevitably be because the players schools find to replace those that have departed are themselves frequently highly speculative additions unless they are already proven Division I players.

ASU has learned this the hard way in recent years. In the spring of 2009 it came in the form of Brandon Thompson and Victor Rudd, neither of whom would remain in Tempe for a second season. In the 2010 class, following the early departures of Rohde, Thompson and Coy, the Sun Devils signed Chanse Creekmur, Brandon Dunson, Kyle Cain and Carrick Felix in the spring period to supplement their fall additions of Jordan Bachynski, Corey Hawkins and King.

In the case of Thompson, Rudd and Dunson, it was clear almost from the time of their arrival at ASU that either due to fit or talent level, they wouldn't be successful at the school. In Creekmur and Cain, the odds were stacked against them, as both players were better suited to be playing at a lower level based on physical limitations. All together, five of ASU's last six spring high school or junior college additions have transferred.

Here today, gone tomorrow

Across the country, the number of annual scholarship transfers has ballooned to an average of more than one per school, dramatically more than a decade ago. According to a published report, a recent study found that 40 percent of players who sign a letter of intent with a Division I school will leave that program by the conclusion of their sophomore year. With 338 Division I schools, that's an awful lot of players switching jerseys.

Last week, three players announced they'd be leaving Michigan despite the program's relative health, with back-to-back 20-plus win seasons and NCAA Tournament success. It's a trend that has become so common, it doesn't generate the same visceral media reaction it used to.

Nowhere has this trend been more damaging than in the Pac-12, where even some of the highest profile additions to the league have departed early into their respective college careers and the ability to overcome those defections is more difficult.

In the last year and a half alone, Jabari Brown left Oregon after playing just several games as a freshman, Bryce Jones left USC after one semester, and Gary Franklin Jr. left Cal after one semester, all of whom were Top-100 recruits nationally. Importantly, all were either starting consistently or semi-regularly and playing a lot of minutes. At Arizona this season, Sidiki Johnson didn't make it a full year and Josiah Turner appears unlikely to return for his sophomore season.

In the West, these problems are exaggerated during cyclical periods when the region's talent level is down. The 2008 NBA Draft included 12 Pac-10 players, nine of whom were from the West, and the 2009 NBA Draft included 10 players from the league, eight of whom were from the region. It's no coincidence that the league's RPI and Sagarin strength (first in 2008, third in 2009) in the seasons immediately preceding those drafts correlated with that talent base strength.

At the other end of the spectrum, the 2010 NBA Draft had just two Pac-10 players selected in the year that followed ASU not getting a NCAA Tournament bid despite finishing second in the league. The 2011 Draft featured five Pac-10 players, four of whom were from the region, and the 2011 McDonald's All-American game had just one of 24 players who hailed from the West (Kyle Wiltjer, who now plays at Kentucky). Again, it's no coincidence that in each of the last three seasons the Pac-12 conference has seen its RPI and Sagarin rankings at historical lows as a result of this talent disparity.

It's also no coincidence that as the second round of the NCAA Tournament got underway two weeks ago, just one of the 32 teams remaining were from the West or Mountain West time zones (Colorado). Conversely, four of the 32 were from Ohio alone, which geographically is better situated for success due to its proximity to talent, with New York City, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Detroit, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and St. Louis all within 500 or so miles.

It's worrisome reality for Pac-12 coaches who, concurrent with seeing their regional talent pool down, increasingly are finding themselves dealing with recruits whose expectations are out of step with reality. Among other things, a combination of faux Internet media celebrity, grassroots basketball pandering and de-emphasis of skill development, and a society bent on immediate gratification has taken a serious toll.

After speaking with hundreds of recruits over the last decade, a trend has become clear. In order to get star recruits to play for their programs, coaches are increasingly pushing the envelope in terms of promises made and superlatives delivered to those who are being recruited by the region's major schools -- players who are perceived as most likely to deliver wins.

In that respect, out of competitive will or even perhaps desperation, it is also college coaches who are fueling the almost unattainable expectations that lead so many of the elite basketball recruits to eventual disappointment once their services have been secured. For an increasing number of recruits, it's no longer enough to play a significant role as a freshman. Sometimes, it's not even enough to be a starter.

The benefactors of this new reality have become easy to identify. Former UCLA players Mike Moser and Chace Stanback helped UNLV to very successful seasons in recent years and former Bruin Drew Gordon guided New Mexico -- where Walker transferred -- to two of its best seasons in history. San Diego State has become nationally relevant in some measure on the backs of BCS transfers, with five on the roster in 2011-12 including former Washington State guard Xavier Thames.

What may surprise some, but shouldn't, is that Mountain West Conference schools often have an easier path to success, and that's been reflected in its recent rise. Aware that the extreme expectations often won't be met, its coaches are able to wait for players to drop down from the BCS level upon which time they must sit out a year, practice with a readjusted perspective and the knowledge that another subsequent transfer isn't palatable. It's one of the reasons the league has been arguably as good or even perhaps better than the Pac-12 in recent years.

Sendek's challenge

Coaches across the country, but particularly for non-elite programs in the West, where proximity to talent is more burdensome, now face a serious conundrum. To be authoritarian is to run the risk of running off your best prospects before they've assimilated. To be overly tolerant is to potentially allow a healthy culture to become polluted. Finding middle ground is a tough place to operate, particularly given all of the aforementioned challenges that exist in the region.

In recent years, Sendek has come to know this reality as well as anyone. After putting forth winning records in 15 of his first 17 seasons as a head coach -- including his first season at ASU, which was unavoidable -- and achieving seven NCAA Tournament berths, his career has reached a critical juncture. After finishing 12-19 overall and last in the conference in 2010-11, the Sun Devils went 10-21 and finished 10th out of 12 teams last season.

King, the player many expected would carry the program's torch post-Harden, was dismissed from the squad in early January despite being its co-leader at 13.7 points per game, and leader with 3.3 assists. The move followed by a week his decision to suspend King, Cain and junior point guard Chris Colvin for the opening week of Pac-12 play for disciplinary reasons.

Trouble with King had been brewing from almost the moment he stepped on campus due to his emotional instability and willingness to test the patience and resolve of ASU's staff. A repentant King said prior to the start of his second season that his struggles as a freshman, when he averaged 3.7 points, were caused by immaturity and an inadequate work ethic.

While he showed incremental improvement on the court in the months prior to his dismissal, King's behavior remained an issue to the point that even teammates grew tired and let their feelings be known to ASU's staff. Sendek eventually concluded a point of no return had been reached. "I just think that it's important, regardless of circumstances, that we maintain certain standards and expectations," Sendek said at the time. "We spent a lot of time together and in the final analysis it just seemed to me that it made great sense for our program and for Keala, that he have a new beginning."

The experience of dealing with King, Cain, Colvin and others before them in recent years, and the on-court failings that have prevented ASU from leveraging the success of Harden and his teammates, has led Sendek to critical self-analysis. In the wake of the success they had in the Harden-era, the Sun Devils swung for the fences in recruiting starting with that 2010 class, but in doing so lost sight of the ball. It's in that respect they seemed to temporarily misplace the identity that enabled their success in the first place.

Righting the ship

This process of taking corrective action to rediscover their identity and address the underlying issues that led to recent woes began well before Sendek suffered the first back-to-back losing seasons of his coaching career. Last off-season, ASU signed Liberty transfer Evan Gordon and added Hawaii transfer Bo Barnes into the fold. Gordon averaged 14.4 points, 2.9 rebounds, and 2.2 assists for the Flames as a sophomore, when the team went 19-13. Barnes averaged 5.9 points as a freshman in 2010-11 and made 57 3-pointers, more than any freshman in school history, including five in a game on four occasions.

With the 2012 recruiting class, rather than chase a plethora of high profile recruits with BCS offers around the country, the ASU staff spent a majority of last year evaluating and getting to know three local recruits they would eventually sign in November, Eric Jacobsen, Kenny Martin, and Calaen Robinson. While not elite recruits national, all three players earned glowing reviews for their play in last July's evaluation period and would have likely seen their recruitments pick up significant steam if not for one fact: They were either already committed to ASU or well on their way.

With the additions of Gordon, Barnes, Jacobsen, Martin and Robinson, Sendek's approach moving forward is clear, even though none have played a game to this point. The Sun Devils will look to take targeted Division I transfers who have already demonstrated success, or a high likelihood or success, at their previous stop; will focus on the development of players who are hard working and grounded with reasonable expectations; will utilize redshirt and mandatory sit out post-transfer years to assimilate players.

Certainly, the coaching staff will continue to recruit Top-100 national prospects, but the number who are offered and time that is invested in that pursuit will be much more measured and those who remain in the mix will be more closely scrutinized. It serves no purpose for ASU to sign so-called elite talent, if their team inclination, character or work ethic are less than stellar, particular for Sendek, a coach who has demonstrated a need to avoid the likes of Brown, Franklin, King, Jones, Turner and others like them.

"The main reason we've had student-athletes transfer out of our program is a combination of expectations around playing time and holding them accountable for their actions," Sendek said in a statement released last week. "It is important that we maintain certain standards and expectations and not lower them. Ideally, we want everybody to stay and graduate. But in some instances it's better for them not to stay.

"During this past season, I have done a deep introspective look at our program under my leadership. I take ownership of the past two seasons and understand where and who we need to recruit. I understand all Sun Devils want an exciting team of young men on the floor that compete with passion and character each game. I am confident we have that group of young men assembled to play at ASU that can compete for a Pac-12 Championship in the near future."

Many ASU fans will read the final sentence of Sendek's statement and feel dubious about the prospects of it being proved accurate, particularly as it comes on the heels of an announcement that the program's best player, Trent Lockett, would be exploring a possible transfer closer to home after learning of his mother's cancer diagnosis. It's an understandable sentiment when looking at a program that has had seven of its 12 scholarship additions over a two class period depart prematurely, including as many as three this year alone.

But fans aren't able to see a lot of the things that lead Sendek to that conclusion, most notably the daily practice returns from Gordon, Barnes and prized point guard recruit Jahii Carson, who was forced to sit out his freshman season -- a reality which undeniably limited the team's success last season -- after not qualifying academically out of Mesa High School. Carson, the No. 35 ranked prospect nationally in the 2011 class, and the only non-college player on the USA 19u team last summer, is one of the main things ASU has been missing the last two seasons: a really good point guard. Several program members went as far as declaring Carson the team's best player last year.

Earlier this month, when asked how quickly ASU could turn things around, Lockett suggested the practice play of Carson, Barnes and Gordon could indicate good things are in store. "I think it can be pretty fast," Lockett said. "Since I've been here, we have maroon and gold teams. Maroon is the starting five and the gold is the scouting team. It's the best scouting team we've had. They really knock down crazy shots and it makes you frustrated in practice. Going into next year I think we have some options we're going to be able to work with."

In addition to Carson and the shooting ability of Gordon and Barnes, the Sun Devils have senior wing Carrick Felix, who averaged 10.5 points and 4.0 rebounds last season, and two very good young frontcourt players returning in 7-foot-2 junior center Jordan Bachynski and 6-foot-7 sophomore forward Jonathan Gilling. In Bachynski, ASU has a player who is following in the footsteps of Jeff Pendergraph and Eric Boateng, two players who were developed nicely by the program's staff. In his last 13 games, Bachynski reached double figures seven times, including a 20 point effort against Stanford, and he had 10 rebounds in the first half of another Pac-12 game. Gilling, meanwhile, had 21 points and hit five 3-pointers in March 4 win over Arizona, and 20 points in 39 minutes against Washington.

Beyond what figures to be their top six players, ASU has a senior backup point guard in Chris Colvin, who made impressive strides late last season, with nine assists and two turnovers against Arizona in the regular season finale after a nine assist, three turnover game against UCLA two weeks prior. In his final 15 outings, Colvin also scored in double figures six times. Backup senior center Ruslan Pateev is eminently serviceable in that role as a good passing 7-footer who 4.6 points and 3.1 rebounds in 16.7 minutes. Put it all together and the Sun Devils have a core eight player rotation and three incoming freshmen who seemingly fit the profile of what Sendek can succeed with.

A lot may rest on the diminutive shoulders of Carson, an enigmatic personality who has rare court generalship potential. If the melding of wills between Sendek and Carson is harmonious, odds are good the Sun Devils will recapture their on court identity and the success that was tethered to it. If not, all bets are off.

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