Men’s hoops eyes escape from mediocrity

Junior center Jordan Bachynski stands at the free throw line in ASU’s 56-52 victory over USC on Feb. 25. (Photo by Aaron Lavinsky)

The Pac-12 has been the home to some of the worst basketball teams in the country the last few years.

ASU has been no exception. It epitomized poor play.

Coach Herb Sendek made men’s basketball relevant in Tempe with three-straight 20-win seasons. Those accomplishments have been engulfed by Sendek’s record the last two seasons — 22-40.

Suddenly, Sendek’s seat is a bit toasty as he prepares for his seventh season.

“We want to get it turned around, but I don’t walk around with an armor of pressure,” Sendek said. “We have a great plan. We have a great group of guys and we really have a big picture in mind.”

There’s reason for optimism this season, however. Sendek lost two assistants — Scott Pera and Lamont Smith — in the offseason, but he now has two NBA-experienced coaches on his bench with Larry Greer and Eric Musselman.

“Together with coach (Dedrique) Taylor, I really believe it gives us the best teaching staff in the country,” Sendek said. “We have a wealth of experience on our staff. We have guys who are really passionate about the game, and they’re really good on the practice court and the bench.”

The cupcake non-conference schedule consists of one road game, two neutral-court games and three games against Arkansas schools (Arkansas, Central Arkansas and Arkansas-Pine Bluff). ASU should be able to surpass its win totals of the last two seasons — 12 and 10 — with 10 non-conference home games this year and what appears to be another weak Pac-12 conference.

The Sun Devils didn’t have a senior last season, but their roster has some key additions and noticeable absences. Trent Lockett transferred to Marquette and Kyle Cain left the program with the intention to transfer. But with ASU’s season opener against Central Arkansas Saturday brings the debut of redshirt freshman point guard Jahii Carson and an improved roster from the last two seasons.

“What I like most about this team is that we got good guys on this team,” Sendek said. “We got real good guys. Guys that are easy to cheer for, easy to be proud of. I just enjoy our time together. This team has a good personality. They have good chemistry. They’re enjoyable guys to coach.”

 

Backcourt 

The guard position will likely be the most improved aspect from last season and plenty has to do with Carson. He will be the focal point of this team. ASU without question missed his gifted abilities last season when it resorted at times to rotating Lockett at point guard.

“I try not to think about the pressure,” Carson said. “I just try to think about taking the Sun Devils to another level. I know there’s a lot of pressure coming in on me. I try not to take so much of the load on myself. I try to think about the season, having a better season and taking the Sun Devils over the hump.”

Sendek said ASU will have an up-tempo pace in transition, called “burn.” It’s similar to what the Sun Devils wanted to do at the time last year — get easy points in transition.

Sendek wants to take advantage of the speed he has in his backcourt. Along with Carson, senior guard Chris Colvin and junior guard Evan Gordon will look to push the offense to create fast break opportunities. Sendek said Colvin will play minutes at shooting guard. Last season, Colvin was used almost exclusively at point guard.

Sophomore shooting guard Bo Barnes can shoot the ball from long range well. He’ll be one of many players benefiting from Carson’s presence. Barnes, Carson and Gordon all sat out last season, but they’re familiar with one another. Barnes and Gordon both missed last season due to NCAA transfer rules while Carson was ruled academically ineligible.

The biggest question marks at this position: How quickly Carson will translate to the collegiate level, and when exactly freshman will guard Calaen Robinson join the team?

ASU’s soft non-conference schedule could benefit Carson. He’ll get a chance to get experience against teams like Central Arkansas before the Sun Devils enter conference play.

Robinson’s status, however, remains a mystery. He was not with the team at Media Day due to an off-the-court matter. It has not been resolved and Sendek does not know when he’ll have Robinson back. Robinson was one of the state’s top recruits last season.

 

Frontcourt

Senior wing Carrick Felix has filled Lockett’s leadership role. He’s without question the voice of this team.

“It really started once last season ended,” Sendek said. “He hasn’t skipped a beat now that we started practice. He’s been positive, yet he’s been firm when needed to be.”

Felix said he started working out immediately after last season to keep his muscle memory in tact. He also worked on his ball handling during the offseason, which he thinks will make him a more aggressive player.

“I think the biggest thing I improved on this year was my handles,” Felix said. “Just getting to the rim more because I’m really trying to focus on getting to the rim, fouled and get to the line than settling for threes.”

Sophomore forward Jonathan Gilling remains as a stretch power forward. He’ll look to improve on an impressive freshman year where he shot 41.7 percent from the three-point stripe.

Sendek has some options at power forward to back Gilling and center. Freshmen forwards Eric Jacobsen and Kenny Martin will get minutes at power forward, while Jacobsen could be an option at center. The 6-foot-10 Hamilton High alumnus checks in at 245 pounds. He has good footwork and is a solid mid-range jumper. Martin can clean the glass and alter shots like he did at Raymond S. Kellis High last season.

“I’ve been very pleased,” Sendek said of his freshmen. “I think our new guys have picked things up exceptionally well. Sometimes, that could be a real challenge, but they’ve absorbed things very well.”

Sendek will play man-to-man defense for the majority of the season. This should benefit junior center Jordan Bachynski and senior center Ruslan Pateev, who had trouble closing out on the corners to three-point shooters in a matchup zone defense.

“I love man-to-man,” Bachynski said. “I love being able to line against a man and it’s basically a battle of wits. I love that aspect of the game, and it’s going to keep me a lot closer to the basket and because of that, the point guards are going to be funneling people to the hoop to the block shots.”

The biggest question in the frontcourt: How much has Bachynski progressed? He hopes to have a big year offensively and ASU’s success could ultimately be determined on his play. His teammates helped Bachynski work on becoming a mentally tough player. Bachynski will also benefit from Carson’s play and the increase in ball screens in the half-court set.

“One thing that Jahii doesn’t get enough credit for is his passing game,” Bachynski said. “He’s an amazing scorer and I’m excited to see him blow by some people, but he does a really good job at passing. When that double team comes, when he gets under pressure, he sees the open man.”

With the way the schedule is set up, ASU should be a tournament team. The NIT tournament should be a very realistic goal, which as much as Sun Devil fans want to make “The Big Dance,” the NIT will be a progressive step following 12-win and 10-win seasons.

That’s likely where the bar will be set for Sendek and his staff. This is still a big year for Sun Devil basketball, even if the NCAA tournament isn’t a realistically obtainable goal. If ASU can’t reach the NIT with Carson and a soft non-conference schedule, Sendek’s job could be in jeopardy.

 

Reach the reporter at mtesfats@asu.edu