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November 28, 2012

Sun Devils again showing promise

In 2007-08 then-second year Arizona State coach Herb Sendek led his program to a NCAA Division I best 13 game improvement in the win column.

With the Sun Devils starting this season 4-1 and a relatively easy non-conference schedule set to unfold over the next month consisting of eight games it will very likely be favored in, the program appears headed for another similar major year-over-year turnaround.

ASU's fortunes have substantially improved from last season, when it won just 10 games, and freshman point guard Jahii Carson is the biggest reason despite being the team's smaller player.

Carson has scored 20 points in three consecutive games and had 30 in a loss to No. 14 Creighton in the finals of the Las Vegas Invitational last weekend. A number of prominent national media members have already questioned whether Carson is among the nation's best first-year players. He's certainly right near the top among floor generals.

"He has played spectacular basketball," Sendek said. "He's taking advantage of the way teams are electing to guard us. Creighton did a lot of switching and he did a great job taking advantage of some of the matchups that presented. He's done a terrific job at the foul like, he's getting to the foul line and he's converting."

But as well as they've played to this point, Carson said the Sun Devils haven't surprised themselves.

"We came into the season with high individual goals and high team goals," he said. "I think everybody wants to be successful individually I know we collectively want to be successful as a team so just think we expected to come out and be 4-1 or 5-0 so I don't think anything has changed."

Even so, after a year and a half hiatus caused by academic ineligibility, Carson wasn't entirely sure what to expect of himself early this season. Now, he does.

"I think I've exceeded [expectations]," he said. "I was just trying to come out there and be comfortable and play my role. I definitely have a lot more confidence that I've played more games."

If ASU is able to do a better job with defensive rebounding, gathering loose balls and taking care of the ball, they could be poised to take additional steps toward being a prominent team in the Pac-12 discussion Carson said.

"I feel we have elite players," he said. "I feel like we're an elite team. Coming from first practice until now around our 30th practice, we're out there talking every day. Chatterbox. Everybody is focused and prepared. I think that we think we're an elite team, so we're going to continue to play (to that level).

"I just think we have to be more grimy. Get out there and play physical and get 50-50 plays. If we set the tempo by being physical it's going to be tough for teams because they're not going to expect that from us. If we set that tone early I think we're going to be an elite team."

Sendek said he'd like to see the team improve its defensive rebounding to 72 percent from 67 percent, and decrease turnovers to around 12 per game, which is a challenge considering the added number of possessions the team is generating due to increased tempo.

But overall, he's happy with how they've done to start the season.

"I just like our team's mojo," Sendek said. "I like our energy, I like our connectivity. It's just a good group to be around. There's good energy. We're still a work in progress, have a lot of room to get better. But we have good energy, we have good connection."

Senior Carrick Felix has flourished with the increased pace of play as the team's best transition athlete, while others, especially junior center Jordan Bachynski and sophomore forward Jonathan Gilling have been slower to adapt. Neither played particularly well against Creighton offensively. And junior starting guard Evan Gordon has started the season in a shooting slump.

But those may be good signs for ASU considering how well the team played, hanging with what some are calling a possible Sweet 16 team in Creighton, until the game's final minutes, and winning the rest of its outings.

The Sun Devils will get a number of chances to develop better offensive rhythm in the coming weeks against lesser talent beginning with Arkansas-Pine Valley tonight at 6 p.m. at Wells Fargo Arena. Having scored at least 79 points in four of their five games to this point, there may even be some real excitement.


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