Men’s hoops paints promising future after hot start

There have been a lot of comebacks in sports lately in the late half of 2012.

Legendary Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez is returning to coach the Badgers for only the Rose Bowl after Bret Bielema bolted to take the Arkansas head coaching helm prior to the game. Rasheed Wallace unretired before the start of the NBA season and is back to screaming “Ball Don’t Lie!” LeBron James bounced back from being the most scrutinized choker in the NBA to suddenly becoming the most respected winner in the game over the summer. Juan Manuel Marquez finally defeated Manny Pacquiao last Saturday with a dramatic knockout after not winning any of the previous three matches between the two fighters.

It won’t be as theatrical, but perhaps we can see a comeback from the ASU men’s basketball team this season, which is on to an 8-1 start after finishing its last two seasons below .500.

Sure, the Sun Devils have gotten the benefit of a very easy nonconference schedule to begin the year (although, their opponents’ combined records is 39-21 as of Wednesday), but several notable teams have struggled with those same cupcake schedules. UCLA, the preseason favorite to win the Pac-12 title, fell to Cal Poly on Nov. 25 and nearly suffered another upset loss to UC Irvine on Nov. 13 in overtime. Utah lost on Nov. 16 to Sacramento State, a team that ASU blasted by 20 points on Dec. 1.

Don’t look now, but ASU has the second-best record in the Pac-12, only trailing undefeated No. 8 UA.

ASU’s only blemish on its schedule was from No. 16 Creighton, a game that was much closer than the 87-73 final score suggests. The Bluejays’ quick 5-of-6 start from the 3-point line doomed ASU in the final round of the Las Vegas Invitational, but the Sun Devils still battled with the Creighton throughout the game.

If anything, that loss convinced ASU that it was capable of competing with the best teams in the country.

What’s been the noticeable improvement this season is the Sun Devils’ overall depth. Last season, starting point guard Keala King abruptly left the team in the middle of the year, which forced Trent Lockett to play a lot of time at point guard before missing part of the season with a sprained ankle. This year, the Sun Devils are stacked in the backcourt with the addition of junior guard Evan Gordon, and junior center Jordan Bachynski has blossomed as a force on both ends of the floor.

Oh, and let’s not forget about redshirt freshman guard Jahii Carson.

Carson has been better than advertised and is undisputedly the best player to wear maroon and gold since James Harden. He’s been outshining UCLA freshman wing Shabazz Muhammad, who was the No. 1 high school senior in the 2012 recruiting class. Muhammad is also expected to be a top pick in next year’s NBA Draft by several draft experts should he turn pro after this season.

Though he’s a score-first point guard, Carson’s teammates absolutely love playing with him. Carson’s threatening ability to score anywhere from the court and push the team’s tempo opens up opportunities for others. Carson’s high-level performance has been consistent. In every game except Creighton, the Sun Devils have also seen big contributions from players like Bachynski, Gordon, senior wing Carrick Felix, junior forward Jonathan Gilling, senior guard Chris Colvin and even freshman forward Eric Jacobsen.

The real test for the Sun Devils starts when ASU finally opens its Pac-12 schedule on Jan. 2 against Utah. The Sun Devils aren’t anywhere close to being perfect, and more flaws will inevitably be exposed once the team starts playing tough conference stretches.

ASU is only two more victories away from matching its win total (10) from last season, and there’s still 22 more games left on the schedule before the Pac-12 Tournament.

The only thing that needs to come back is attendance at Wells Fargo Arena. This is another opportune time for Sun Devil fans to see another rising star leading another great men’s basketball run. ASU has shown flashes of strong potential in this opening slate of games and could even finish in the top half of the Pac-12, but should the Sun Devils slip in its conference play, they at least now have a lot to build on for at least another season.

With ASU football ending on a pleasant note and men’s basketball emerging, this is shaping out to be an exciting era for ASU Athletics.

 

Reach the reporter at jnacion@asu.edu