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May 23, 2013

Part I: Conversation with Herb Sendek

Earlier this month we sat with Arizona State basketball coach Herb Sendek for a conversation about his program's performance in the 2012-13 season and glimpse into the future. Here's Part I of our two-part Q&A.

ASUDevils.com: So Dedrique (Taylor) left to take a head job (at Cal State Fullerton) which expands your coaching tree. You've had more former assistants go on to head jobs than any coach in the country, what do you make of that and of Dedrique getting the opportunity?

Herb Sendek: "We've been extremely fortunate to hire exceptionally talented staff members and are really excited and happy for Dedrique not only because he's a head coach but he's back home. So he's thrilled with this opportunity and I have no question in my mind he'll do a great job. He'll get really talented players to go to Fullerton and he's an excellent coach."

ASUDevils.com: With Dedrique and (director of operations) Rob (Spence) leaving after Scott (Pera) and Lamont (Smith) left last year, it's like you've had a complete turnover after having those guys as members of your staff for a very long time. What's that new dynamic starting to look like?

Sendek: Well it was an exciting opportunity to bring in talent for our staff. Stan Johnson has hit the ground running and I've been impressed with him in every way. There's no doubt he's the type of coach you want your son to play for. He has a great value system, he's tremendously passionate, extremely hard worker. We hired Jason Ludwig for our director of basketball operations and technology position and he's a perfect fit because he's been doing that kind of thing with UCLA the last several years and comes to us with a great reputation.

ASUDevils.com: With regard to last season, now that you've had some time to reflect on it, how do you feel the team did relative to your expectations?

Sendek: We said we wanted to have a program we all could be proud of and have something to cheer for and I think this past season our team met that standard and expectation. Personally, it was one of the most fulfilling and fun years I've had as coach. Our problems were kept to a minimum, guys consistently had great attitudes and work ethics and we had maybe the best leadership we've ever received from a player with the way Carrick Felix put his arms around our team. It was a fulfilling season just coaching those guys. Obviously you want to always win more and do better but I think we can be excited about the direction of our program."

ASUDevils.com: You referenced Carrick. He had a great year, improved substantially and a great leader and ambassador for your program. Do you feel you'll be able to fill that void with the guys you have returning and how do you do that so you achieve the trajectory you're aiming for?

Sendek: I don't know that we'll replace Carrick with any one player because he was really so unique but at the same time a year ago I don't think anyone could have predicted he'd have such a brilliant season in every way. So when you lose a player like that, you rarely replace him with every play and you have to do so collectively. No. 1, the guys returning are going to be better and have to do better. And No. 2, replacing Chris, Carrick and Ruslan, we'll have as many as six new players and just by that addition and subtraction, you're going to have a new dynamic. But I feel and it's been my experience that great leadership from your players is something that others learn from and it can help you make those transitions.

ASUDevils.com: You didn't play deep with your lineup last year but you had Richie (Edwards) sitting out and Calaen (Robinson) sitting out and Brandan (Kearney) transfer in and practice with you for part of the season. Between those guys and the players you will be adding, do you feel like you'll have a deeper team?

Sendek: "I think it's always hard to gauge but it's always evolving. On paper it would seem deeper and we would ideally be a little deeper but on the other hand I don't know how possible it is to play 12 or 13 players in college basketball. At the end of the day your rotation is going to be six or seven if you're not deep and eight if you're right in the middle and if you're deep nine or 10 guys.

ASUDevils.com: You've tended to play seven or eight over your career. Is that your preference and if so why is that?

Sendek: I think eight is the most comfortable number but I don't know that coaches determine that as much as players. If you have the competitiveness to play more, it's not like we go in with a closed mind to that. But those things are determined once we start playing and come together.

ASUDevils.com: Jahii (Carson) might have the biggest spotlight on him of any point guard returning in college basketball after the season he had last year. What do you make of his year, did you think it was possible for him to have that type of success and where does he go from here?

Sendek: I really did think he was going to have phenomenal success out of the gates. He's immensely talented and we were going to put him in position to have the ball in his hands, make plays and I think the convergence of those two dynamics: his talent and the opportunity and position he had propelled him to a great season. We put a lot on his shoulders as a first year player, relied on him to do a long of things for us and he was spectacular the way he delivered. Especially so when you consider he didn't play the previous year, a situation as I've said a number of times he handled with grace and dignity. As good as he was, I was so proud of him with how he kept getting better and better. He was not the same player at the beginning of the season as he was at the end of it.

ASUDevils.com: So your offsesason with him and your emphasis for the future, off the court, on the court, etc. is what?

Sendek: Well as we praised Carrick for the leadership he provided, in a lot of ways Jahii is now prepared to provide more leadership. In the absence of Carrick there will be new leadership opportunities.

ASUDevils.com: It felt to me as times that while Carrick flourished playing with a point guard like Jahii, others maybe didn't as well, at least at times. I don't know how you see that but what are your thoughts about others, like Jonathan (Gilling) or your bigs having a year under their belt playing with Jahii and at his pace and how that shapes you moving forward?

Sendek: I think having that experience should benefit all of them but I think Jahii is one of those guys who makes everyone better. He can create shots for his teammates and we rely on him to do that and those guys benefit from that and will continue to with perhaps a better feel for situations given their additional reps with him on the floor and their overall cohesiveness.

ASUDevils.com: As I watched your NIT game against Baylor I was struck by a sense that I was watching two teams that easily could have been in the NCAA Tournament field and held their own. Last year's schedule wasn't the most challenging of course. Was that because you wanted to get your team started with some good momentum after not doing well the last couple years and factoring in some new pieces, or what was the mindset behind that decision because it obviously contributed to your team not being able to participate in the NCAA Tournament?

Sendek: Obviously we were coming off a poor season so we felt it was really important to build momentum going into our conference. Certainly our non-conference strength of schedule didn't help us when it came to NCAA selection time but having said that, we still had an opportunity had we won another couple of games, a number of which we seemed to lose on the last possession it seemed, to be an at-large team. But I think the obvious and most compelling reason we did that was coming off a poor season, we wanted to get our feet back under us as a program.

ASUDevils.com: So in light of that, how frustrating or what was the emotion like knowing you were probably good enough to be a Tournament team but weren't in part because of the scheduling component?

Sendek: Once again, I think the schedule perhaps was a part of it but there were other parts that equally contributed to not being a Tournament team. We still had an opportunity to beat Creighton, to beat DePaul, the win any number of conference games we didn't down the stretch. It seemed like so many of our games game down to the last possession or two and we didn't win enough of those. So even if we had the same schedule and won a couple more games -- I don't know how many more -- we still could have gotten a bid hypothetically. So the schedule played a part but it's hard to look at a reverse negative. Had we not played that schedule we might not have come together the way we did, had the confidence we had and grew and eventually allowed us to be and become the team we were. That's something I think we'll never know. I think we really improved as a team from the early portion of the season. Even some of those early opponents that were not considered to be good teams, we battled tooth and nail at times and had competitive games. That's the other thing about college basketball today, it's hard to say exactly who is and isn't a decent opponent. Moving forward, obviously we're in a different place right now and I'd like to return to playing a schedule that would allow us to get an at-large bid (more easily).

ASUDevils.com: How challenging is scheduling at ASU just generally speaking? I know you had the one season a few years ago where you thought you had a pretty challenging non-conference schedule and one that would look good from an RPI standpoint at the end of the year and as a result of that combined with a weak conference RPI you were perhaps the last team out of the NCAA Tournament.

Sendek: Well it's a moving target because it's difficult to project how every team is going to end up doing and you have to do it well in advance of any games being played. Also there's just not as many schools in the west as other parts of the country so you don't have as many options unless travel is going to become a factor just given what other teams are interested in doing. But having said that I'm still confident we'll be able to put together a really good schedule this year.

Editor's note: This interview took place before Sendek learned of the transfer of starting senior guard Evan Gordon to Indiana

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