Herb Sendek's teams at Arizona State haven't typically induced much head scratching over the last few years. Coaches and fans typically know what they're going to get from their team and how and why. Limitations are clear, strengths are easily defined.
So, after they led the nation in scoring defense through mid-January, it was a bit of a shock to the system to see the Sun Devils (16-8; 6-5 in Pac-10) get blown out at home to Arizona on Jan. 23 and again at Washington last Saturday, and give up at least 77 points in each of their last five games.
"The defense is just, yeah we've fallen off a bit and we've had some pretty rough film sessions showing that," junior Ty Abbott said. "It kind of hurt losing Jamelle (McMillan, who missed the four games leading up to the recently concluded Washington trip) and so now we've got to get back in our defensive mode and really focus this week and try to get back to the basic stuff we started out with because the beginning of the year we were holding teams to 40-however many points."
Ball penetration has caused the Sun Devils problems and not having a totally healthy McMillan, one of the team's best defenders at the top of their zone, has led to a lot of easy baskets, especially against teams featuring quick, penetrating point guards and wings.
But just as much a problem has been ASU's inability to get into the flow of its motion offense at the other end of the court, with Washington in particular doing an excellent job extending its pressure and preventing offensive initiative. That has led to long misses and turnovers, both of which contribute to transition baskets going the other direction.
Oregon State (10-12; 4-6) , the team ASU faces tonight at 6:30 p.m. at Wells Fargo, can have a similar approach with its defense, even if it doesn't have quite the athletic ability of Washington on the perimeter.
"They play defenses you can't recreate in a couple days of practice," Sendek said. "They play an extended 1-3-1 they play a 2-3 matchup, they'll blend in switching man-to-man that looks like their 2-3 matchup, they'll extended some full court pressure. So they change defenses and keep you off-balance plus they play defenses you have a difficult time recreating in a short practice time."
Despite returning almost all of their key players from last sseason, the Beavers have been relatively mediocre, which hasn't really measured up to expectations after they were picked almost universally to finish in the top half of the league by various media outlets. But they've played a little better of late, especially in a blowout 62-42 win over Oregon last week.
"It seems like they really just needed some time to integrate some new players with their returners and now that they've been able to do that they're reaping the dividends," Sendek said. "But I've said this right along, I think they have some really good players and I think they're a difficult team to match up against."
ASU knows its NCAA Tournament hopes will require a strong finish to the regular season and possibly even necessitate a run in the Pac-10 Tournament. It figures they'll almost certainly have to get a sweep this weekend in what has to be considered the easiest of the homestands on the conference schedule, and the players appear to be well aware of what's ahead of them.
"There's an excitement and a kind of anxiousness," Abbott said. "Obviously right now we know that we're not guaranteed to play in March, in the (NCAA) Tournament. We need to step our game up and everyone is feeling that pressure. Not to say that it's a bad pressure but everybody has to step up and get their game going because we need everybody to be their best to make this run that we need.
"I tell [teammates], even during games, sometimes we're behind, 'We need to play with a purpose.' Our purpose is to make the Tournament, to win a conference championship, thinks like that. Those are things that are very feasible for us and I think those things have to be stressed, especially to the young guys."