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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Catching up to big brother

    UA forward Chase Budinger backs away from intense pressure from ASU guard Jerren Shipp during the Wildcats 71-47 win over the Sun Devils in McKale Center last year. Buoyed by McDonalds All-American guard James Harden, who leads the Pac-10 in steals, ASU could be on the verge of making this lopsided series more of a rivalry.
    UA forward Chase Budinger backs away from intense pressure from ASU guard Jerren Shipp during the Wildcats’ 71-47 win over the Sun Devils in McKale Center last year. Buoyed by McDonald’s All-American guard James Harden, who leads the Pac-10 in steals, ASU could be on the verge of making this lopsided series more of a rivalry.

    Opponent Analysis

    TEMPE – For years ASU has been Triple-A and Arizona the Major Leagues when it comes to college basketball, a rivalry only by geographic location.

    How else do you explain how the Wildcats have reeled off 24 wins in their last 25 meetings, including 12 in a row, a stretch that started when ASU’s best player, James Harden, was all of 6 years old?

    Nothing might illustrate the difference between the programs more so than how Sun Devils guard Derek Glasser thought of one of the goals ASU head coach Herb Sendek set for his team at the beginning of the season.

    “”One of the things was 20-plus wins, and you’ve got to be a really good team to get 20 wins, especially in the Pac(ific) 10 (Conference),”” Glasser said.

    When the Wildcats win just 20 games, which they have done three times in the last four years with an Elite Eight trip in between, it’s considered a disappointing season, the type of year that would be lauded as progress in Tempe.

    It’s the reverse of how the schools approach their football programs, where UA fans would salivate at the chance to play in any lowly bowl whereas Dirk Koetter got fired a year ago as the Devils’ head coach for not reaching good enough bowls.

    But ASU’s freshman class led by Harden, the reigning Pac-10 Player of the Week, could care less about recent history. Instead they focus on the 12 games the Devils already have won of their first 14 after winning eight games in a row for the second time in the past 26 years, since the days before Lute Olson arrived in Tucson.

    That’s after sweeping Oregon and Oregon State last weekend, something the Wildcats failed to do, to start out 2-0 in the Pac-10 for just the third time in their 30 years in the conference and the first time since 1987-88, ironically the unofficial start of Arizona’s dynasty being the first of four Final Four years and the first of 20 straight 20-win seasons.

    “”We can make history, we can change things around here, and that’s what the freshmen came here to do, to help these guys change things around here,”” Harden said. “”We’re starting on that path, and we’re looking forward to do that.””

    Arizona loyalists can still point to the fact the Wildcats schedule teams like No. 2 Memphis on the road, No. 3 Kansas on the road, No. 11 Texas A&M, Virginia and Nevada-Las Vegas on the road, leading to the Wildcats’ No. 1 strength of schedule rating.

    On the other side of the scheduling world, ASU’s No. 258-ranked slate includes basketball powers such as Florida Gulf Coast, Cal Poly, Delaware State, St. Francis (Pa.) and Idaho at home, where the Devils are 10-0.

    In the schools’ only mutual contest of the nonconference season, Illinois throttled the Devils 77-54 in Hawaii, while the Wildcats beat the Fighting Illini 78-72 in Chicago.

    However, to the Devils’ credit, they blew out then-No. 17 Xavier 77-55 on Dec. 15 for the largest win over a ranked team in ASU history, the type of victory more common in McKale Center than Wells Fargo Arena.

    “”This is not the same ASU team and you have to give credit to coach Sendek,”” said UA senior guard Jawann McClellan, who has never lost to ASU.

    The Devils often head into their matchups with Arizona already bemoaning a lost season, but this time they at least believe they belong on the same court with the Wildcats.

    “”I think this is probably one of the better teams that can compete with them,”” said ASU forward Jeff Pendergraph, who leads the conference in field-goal shooting (68.4 percent). “”It doesn’t really seem like it’s going to be a landslide victory for them, it’s going to be a really good game and probably one of the best games between U of A and ASU that there’s been.””

    So that sets up what could be the start of a seismic swing in a series that Sendek seems poised to make a rivalry. Although Wednesday’s game could be the one that begins to turn the tide, with the Devils even being favored likely due to the questionable status of UA guard Jerryd Bayless, Sendek and crew still repeated the company line that this is just another game.

    Even when a Phoenix reporter practically put the words in Sendek’s mouth that this showdown is huge for the Arizona State basketball program, he still would not budge off his Kevin O’Neill-like “”every game is the biggest game”” stance.

    “”It’s our next game, and it’s therefore very important to us and we’re going to invest all of ourselves and do the best we can,”” Sendek said. “”I don’t think we ever just play another game. We always want to play the next game like it’s the most important on our schedule.””

    Added Pendergraph: “”We’re just looking at it as another basketball game where we’ve got to do what we do.””

    And Glasser: “”It’s just another Pac-10 game. It’s just another game.””

    Not that anybody believes them, with the Devils receiving twice as many votes in the Associated Press poll than Arizona this week and with a chance to lengthen that margin.

    To get to this point, Sendek has developed a tricky zone defense that allows just 56.5 points per game (eighth nationally) and a high-percentage offense that shoots 50.3 percent (eighth) and turns the ball over just 11.9 times per game (11th).

    For the second straight year, a freshman class is at the heart of the revival.

    Last year freshmen guards Christian Polk – who happens to be one of Bayless’ best friends – Jerren Shipp and Glasser combined to start 46 percent of ASU’s games. Already this year Harden, guards Ty Abbott and Jamelle McMillan and forward Rihards Kuksiks have started 51 percent of the games, with Harden and Abbott starting every one.

    Harden also symbolizes ASU’s resurgence in that he became the first McDonald’s All-American to sign with the school out of high school since 1984. Combined with center Eric Boateng, a transfer and former McDonald’s All-American, this represents improved recruiting for a program that has only seen three previous McDonald’s All-Americans ever play for it.

    By contrast, Arizona will have three in its starting lineup if Bayless is healthy enough to join McClellan and forward Chase Budinger.

    McClellan, the UA defensive stopper, said he expects to get the assignment on Harden, a player Sendek called “”instrumental”” to his team’s success. Arizona’s interim head coach O’Neill added he’s a “”special player”” who scores many different ways, and McClellan noticed he scores his team-high 17.6 points per game within ASU’s offense.

    “”I think James, the reason he’s so good is he can play with the team,”” said Glasser, Harden’s current and high school teammate. “”He’s not looking to come out here and score 35 points every game or take every shot. He plays so well with everybody, and it just makes all of us including him look so much better.””

    At the beginning of the season when Sendek wrote his goals for the team on a board, forward Jeff Pendergraph said the players were skeptical of some of them coming off an 8-22 season that included two Pac-10 wins in 18 games, unaware of the kind of contributions freshmen like Harden would make.

    “”We were looking at it like we can do that, we can do that, oh that’s going to be tough, that one’s going to be tough, that one, hmm,”” Pendergraph said.

    So the expectations have remained the same – holding home court, finishing positive on the road and reaching the NCAA Tournament, goals Pendergraph now calls “”achievable”” – but the team’s play has made them seem more realistic.

    “”They kind of seemed a little bit far for us at the beginning,”” Pendergraph said, “”but that’s because I don’t think we knew what we were capable of doing, and we’re still in that process, figuring out what we can do.

    “”Those were pretty good goals for us. We just need to realize we can do it.””

    A long-awaited win over Arizona would move the Devils closer to that realization – and be the first step toward making this a rivalry again.

    Lance Madden contributed to this report

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