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The dilemma of a struggling basketball team

Ignoring the possibility of winning the Pac-10 tournament for a moment, the age-old question of how a college program should approach a lost season is front and center for the ASU men’s basketball team heading down the final stretch — tournament included.

Without doing a statistical analysis and just taking a cursory glance at coach Herb Sendek’s distribution of minutes over the season, all the while trying to recall the action, the injuries and other variables like foul trouble, it appears Sendek has allotted more minutes to a greater number of players and more minutes to younger players in the second half of the Pac-10 schedule.

Without running on, I sense a bit of a trend.

Still, seniors Rihards Kuksiks, Ty Abbott and Jamellle McMillan have continued to receive steady playing time in the second half of the season, though Abbot’s has slightly decreased and McMillan’s has increased, perhaps partly due to his recovery from a groin injury and a recent binge of shot-making.

While all three players, particularly Abbott and Kuksiks, deserve to be rewarded with farewell minutes, one wonders the costs and benefits of two strategies.

Yes, the sports world loves false dichotomies, so let’s consider them mutually exclusive.

Traditionalists will argue that a good program will play its upper-classmen during a lost season (or stretch of games where postseason chances are slim to none). The value is mostly symbolic.

Underclassmen see the respect given to upperclassmen that have worked hard and paid their dues; they in turn gain appreciation for the process.

They “buy in,” knowing that even in the worst-case scenario, so long as they work hard, a reward awaits and the end of their careers won’t be spent on the bench.

Traditionalists will argue that this process ignites team unity, and perhaps more importantly, spurs player development and creates a culture of trust.

But some will argue all of that comes at the cost of the future.

While no one knows what happens at practice and what other factors go into a coach’s development plan for a player, can we accept that the best way for a player to get better and be most able to help his team in the future is to play?

And while only a select few outside the program have a good idea of how a player is developing during practice and film sessions, coaches still supply much of that information, and we can therefore assume any playing time is justified.

So is it really logical to expect a player to get better in limited minutes?

I think the answer is no.

If a player has earned the right to see the court, if the chances of advancing the prospect of an NCAA tournament berth are almost non-existent, and if you think you’ll be relying on said player in the future, that player has to play.

Maybe extended minutes will allow freshman Keala King to find out a few things he can do well at the Division I level, allowing him to build on them in the off-season.

Sophomore Carrick Felix has upside, and maybe that extra 10 minutes a game along with the “royal jelly,” as player-developer David Thorpe calls it, turns 2012 Felix into this year’s Trent Lockett.

Given the amount of underclassmen, there are numerous scenarios like that. At the very least, you get a better idea of what you have and how it or they work together.

If Sun Devil fans know one thing about next year, it’s that the style of play on offense must be adapted for what will be an almost complete absence of 3-point shooting.

If and how that can be orchestrated under Sendek is the topic that rages on the premium fan message boards, and perhaps beyond.

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