Pictures have been taken, bonds have been made, summer exhibition games have been dominated, fall practices have begun, and coaches are ready. Though it's only early October, the stage is set for Arizona State basketball. It's time to get serious.
"It's a great feeling," returning senior center Jordan Bachynski said. "We've been together all summer, we had China together, so we're really feeling like a team and we've been working really hard. We're in the best shape I've ever seen us. If you had asked us to do some of the conditioning we've had this year last year, guys would not have been able to do it. It was insane this year and we're all mentality tougher and we were all able to finish everything. No guy slacked off."
Referring to last year, head coach Herb Sendek said he looks to build even more on the varying skills the players exemplified.
"We're going to continue to move the needle in the direction we had it going last year," Sendek said. "We're going to play fast-breaking, up tempo, free-flowing attack basketball. We're looking forward to continuing a very entertaining, fast brand of hoops."
As far as improvements go, the knowledge of the team's rebounding issues last year deems to be an issue, but in general, Sendek said rather than be hyper-focused on just one area, he wants improvement across the board.
"There are certain things that maybe individuals can really focus on, but I want our guys to come back and be better in all areas," Sendek said. "We're always trying to advance on a broad basis. I want them to rebound better, defend better, post-up better. You can always get better in any facet and that's kind of our mindset."
In addition to working on improving their individual skills, players have also been trying to build chemistry and understand each others' tendencies on the court.
An ever-developing leader on and off the court for the Sun Devils, pre-season All-American sophomore point guard Jahii Carson noticed changes in connections throughout the summer.
"I think we bonded more, more chemistry," Carson said. "(Junior forward Jonathan) Gilling is shooting the ball better, everybody else is penetrating, I'm getting the open spot up and (Jordan Bachynski) is using both hands just as well. Guys are knowing their roles. Guys aren't competing with anyone as far as having competition with guys. Guys are just trying to get out there and compete with each other and make each other better, but not as far as hating on each other. I think that's what's going to be the biggest difference for us going into being that much more competitive on the court against other teams."
After the departure of team leader Carrick Felix to the NBA this year, not only has bonding been stressed, but also the need for leaders other than Carson to emerge on the court.
"It's not who I'd like to step up, it's who earns the trust and confidence of their teammates as a leader," Sendek said. "I don't think a leader is someone who I as a coach can Knight. It comes from the ranks a lot."
Amongst the ranks are eight newcomers, many of whom will contribute greatly to the team and will indeed step up when their time comes according to junior forward Jonathan Gilling.
"We definitely have a deeper bench than we had last year," Gilling said. "Jahii played 38 (minutes), I played 36 a game and Carrick played almost as much, maybe 35-36 a game. It's going to take a lot of pressure off of the starters."
Senior Penn State transfer Jermaine Marshall sees the potential not only in the newcomers like himself, but also as the team as a whole.
"I knew what they had (coming in), but I never got to see the guys play," Marshall said. "Every time we got together and played pickup, I got more excited just because I've seen how good we can be and I think the scary part is I don't think we know how good we can be yet."
Gilling sees these connections being made as well, but noted the importance of continuing this sense of closeness throughout the season.
"When season hits, adversity, everything, we got to keep together," Gilling said. "We put all these [sayings on the walls] and one of the things is, 'The circle will not break with me,'" and Coach has put a lot of emphasis on that so I feel like we have a chance to be really good and we just have to make it work."
Looking forward, the team has high hopes, but Sendek's singular focus is on getting the most out of each day and not looking ahead.
"Everyone tries to look into their crystal ball to see what things will look like for March, but as one of our core values says, 'Now is the only time. The path is the goal,'" Sendek said. "We are totally immersed in this segment of the season, which is preseason practice. We have 30 days; we have already used three of them so we're down to 27 days and our focus has to improve as much as we can during that time period. Like all teams on October 3, we aspire to be in the Tournament, we aspire to have a great season. That's one of the beauties of college basketball, there's always a new beginning, there's always fresh faces to get you excited and there's always familiar faces to remind you. So, we're like everybody else; very excited about the new season on the horizon."