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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    ASU head coach Sendek starting out on the same path UA’s Olson traveled 24 years ago

    Herb Sendek
    Herb Sendek

    When UA head coach Lute Olson left Iowa after the 1982-83 season, having taken the Hawkeyes to five straight NCAA Tournaments to take over a struggling program in Tucson that had just gone 4-24 the previous year, some people may have thought he was crazy.

    When ASU head coach Herb Sendek left North Carolina State last season, having taken the Wolfpack to five straight NCAA Tournaments to take over a struggling program in Tempe that has made just one tournament appearance since 1995, the public may have had similar thoughts about the new head Sun Devil.

    Now 24 years later Olson has built quite a program, complete with 22 straight NCAA Tournament appearances, four Final Fours and a national championship.

    Thus far in Sendek’s inaugural campaign he is behind Olson’s first-year pace, having yet to win a conference game in eight tries, but is it possible for Sendek to do what Olson has done in the next 24 years?

    Although Olson noted that the Sun Devils have done a “”good job”” recruiting, signing five-star guard James Harden, three-star guard Jamelle McMillan – who is the son of Portland Trail Blazers’ head coach Nate McMillan – and Duke transfer Eric Boateng, he said the ultimate decider of Sendek’s success could be the Sun Devils’ fans.

    “”The biggest problem is I felt here if our program played well, played hard and played well, we’d get fans,”” Olson said.

    “”That’s still what ASU’s problem is. Kids do not want to play in half-filled arenas. Whether that can be overcome or not I don’t know, but I think that’s probably his biggest challenge.

    “”You can sign some kids the first time around, but if the fans don’t react you’re going to have a hard time signing good kids the next time.””

    ASU’s attendance has been pitiful in recent years, mirroring the lack of support their former neighbors in Sun Devil Stadium, the Arizona Cardinals, received for years in the Valley of the Sun. Last season, ASU averaged 6,731 fans per game, and it’s been even worse this year at 5,803 per contest.

    A saturated sports market in Phoenix complicates matters for Sendek, as fans can watch the NBA’s Suns if they want to see professional basketball or a squad in any of the other four major sports as well if they wish.

    However, Sendek pointed out that a number of programs with poor attendance over the years have turned things around, saying that growing up in Pittsburgh he would often sit courtside at Panthers’ games despite deciding to attend shortly before tip-off.

    “”We’re committed to doing a number of things on different fronts to get people into the stands,”” Sendek said. “”We’re very confident that we’ll be able to continue to increase attendance.””

    As for the short term, Sendek said he knew he would be “”enormously challenged”” in his first season, which has been the case with his squad currently on a nine-game losing streak and with losses to NAU, Portland State and Davidson on their ledger. Still, he said the Devils have maintained a positive disposition.

    ASU’s state of mind “”really has not been an issue even for one moment,”” Sendek said. “”Our guys have been tremendously resilient. They’ve shown great character. The spirits have been terrific, and we’re just focused on getting better. There’s no guarantees, but at the same time we’re committed to battling every step of the way.””

    The Sun Devils have played Sendek’s slow-down style, having not allowed any opponent to score more than 76 points by playing mainly zone defense. They give up an average of 63.4 points per game, fourth in the conference.

    But they do not score much either, ranking dead last in the conference by five points with a 61.1 points per game average.

    “”We’ve got to keep pounding the ball as far as pushing it and forcing them to play this type of tempo of basketball,”” UA forward Marcus Williams said. “”If we get the rebound we’ve got to kick it up the floor, and if we can just kind of force them to (play fast), if we get out early then they can’t slow the game down or else they’re not going to be able to get back with us.””

    Forward Chase Budinger said the No. 17 Wildcats must maintain their focus as well, which has been an issue at times when the pace has slowed down.

    Williams and Budinger also have to deal with ASU forward Jeff Pendergraph, who averages a team-leading 13.1 points and 8.9 rebounds per contest and is their go-to guy on offense.

    “”He’s a real banger, he’s real aggressive to the boards,”” Williams said. “”I’m guessing we’re going to send a few different looks at him, try to mix it up, but we also can’t just focus on one guy because anybody, there’s always some guy against Arizona who has a clutch, clutch game. We’ve got to make sure we contain their other guys as well.””

    Freshman guards Christian Polk (12.8 points per game) and Jerren Shipp (7.6) could be those others the Wildcats need to contain.

    Although Sendek’s first year is already a lost season – the only suspense left concerns whether the Sun Devils will win a conference game – looking about 100 miles down Interstate 10 Sendek has a look at the best-case scenario for his tenure in Tempe.

    “”We’re not looking at this as a state of despair,”” Sendek said. “”We’re working extremely hard. There’s a lot of people going in the same direction, and we’re very confident we’re going to continue to take positive steps forward.””

    AND 1

    Although Sendek is far from Olson status at this stage of his career, Sendek’s biggest victory when he was a second-year head coach in charge of Miami (Ohio) came in the 1995 NCAA Tournament, when Sendek’s No. 12-seeded Red Hawks upset Olson’s No. 5-seeded Wildcats in the first round.

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