Arizona State kicks off what, on its surface, looks to be a transitional basketball season tonight at 7 p.m. at Wells Fargo Arena against lightly regarded Western Illinois.
But as Sun Devil coach Herb Sendek likes to say, his team is in a competition with itself more than with anyone else.
This season, that could be quite the competition.
The Sun Devils must replace two-thirds of their offensive production from last season, as Jeff Pendergraph and James Harden have moved on to the NBA.
Outside expectations have been substantially lowered from last season, when the Sun Devils were expected to make an NCAA appearance. Most prognosticators have picked the Sun Devils to finish anywhere between sixth and last place in the Pac-10, including the conference's media poll, which pegged ASU in seventh position.
But it's not something Sendek believes the team should concern itself with.
"I haven't really talked with them about that subject matter," Sendek said. "I wouldn't think we'd need to rely on what other people say to motivate us. I think the only lasting or meaningful motivation is that which comes from within. Hopefully as the season starts we won't have to go there to get our juice. I think the juice is flowing anyway. It's a new season everybody is excited about the start of things again."
Certainly, the Sun Devils have enough to concern themselves with without spending time thinking about what others are saying. They've seen their coach implement a fourth offense in as many seasons, one with four perimeter players and designed in a way to allow more free form movement off the ball.
They've also had to bring five freshmen into the fold -- including Victor Rudd, who has not yet been certified to compete by the NCAA Clearinghouse -- and practice without junior Ty Abbott, who just returned to workouts this week after missing a month following knee surgery.
Still, ask ASU players what they think of their team and their answers are uniformly self-confident.
"We want to make the (NCAA) Tournament," senior point guard Derek Glasser said. "We feel it's a realistic goal. We feel we're capable of doing everything we did last year."
Indeed, those around the program suggest ASU's goals aren't that different from last year, when the Sun Devils won 25 games and reached the second round of the NCAAs. Without the offense of Harden and Pendergraph, it seems like a stretch, but Sendek is of the opinion basketball can't be compartmentalized in that fashion.
"Every team is different," Sendek said. "Some teams have a guy that is the go-to player and everybody knows on a certain possession where the ball is going. Other teams are very effective and it's a much more of an equal distribution in those situations. I think you can be effective in either case."
There are no clear star players on the squad that remains, with Glasser, a selfless, pass-first leading the charge after playing extremely inspired basketball in the team's stretch run and post-season tournaments earlier this year.
Glasser is healthier heading into the season than the last couple years, and he'll likely be relied upon to shoot and score more than in previous years. But the Sun Devils will likely have an extremely balanced attack this year, with numerous players capable of averaging at or near double figures, including Abbott, senior center Eric Boateng, and junior forward Rihards Kuksiks.
"The face of our team is changing but you know it happens to every team," Glasser said. "A lot of [teams] lost a lot of guys this year (in the Pac-10) so we have to rebuild just like they do but we have guys who can fill those spots. Eric may not be as athletic as Jeff or as quick as Jeff but Eric is a guy who is a legitimate center. He likes to play with his back to the basket, which is nothing that we've had here in a while. He wants the ball on the block, he wants to take one or two dribbles and give you a jump hook…Eric is going to compliment our team really well this year.
"Ty is not going to have the year he had last year. Ty is a completely different player. Defensively, Ty brings the same thing every game. But offensively Ty has aspects to his game that he hasn't shown yet. He went through a really rough period last year and kind of lost a lot of confidence but that's all back now and he's ready to go."
"Rick has been a one dimensional player since he's been here. Every time Rick's gone to the basket, everyone is like, 'Oh, he can do that.' But Rick can do that. He's going to have to do that a lot more this year and we're looking for Rick to do a lot more this year than to just stand there and wait for us to pass him the ball and shoot."
Junior guard Jamelle McMillan and senior wing Jerren Shipp could also be poised to see their roles expand further this season. McMillan has played extensively behind or even alongside Glasser, but there are indications his offensive game has expanded a bit in the off-season and he's become a more consistent shot-maker, even off the dribble. Shipp has lost upwards of 15 pounds and become quicker and bouncier. For now, it appears he's maneuvered himself into a starting role.
Among the team's freshmen, wing Trent Lockett may be in line for the most minutes. He's a smart, athletic player who operates well from the mid-range and can defend and rebound his position well. If he is able to make shots at a high enough clip from the perimeter, he has star potential. Guard Demetrius Walker should play a backup role on the wing, aided by his toughness and fearless approach. Center Ruslan Pateev is big and skilled, and should spell Boateng.
No matter what is in store for the Sun Devils, Glasser said the team has put in its best off-season of the Sendek-era in Tempe, and that should go a long way to helping in the win-loss column.
"I've never seen our team work like this. Every time we'd have to call a coach and say, 'Can we get in the gym, or is there gym time or what's available today.' Now you just go swipe your little student card. We have 24 hour access, any time of the day or night you can go and get shots up…We have all the resources that we need to get better and guys have taken full advantage of that."
Chalk that up as a victory in the completion-against-self category. We should find out relatively quickly if it will translate to the win column.