Sun Devils rise in the West
TEMPE, Ariz. – He was there because he belonged – because he was one of the best high school basketball players in the country.
Still, two years ago, during the pregame introductions for the McDonald’s All-American game, James Harden couldn’t have felt more out of place.
Kevin Love was bound for UCLA, Cole Aldrich was headed to Kansas and Kyle Singler had signed with Duke. With every name announced over the public address system, a school with a tradition-rich basketball program was always attached.
Well, almost always.
“Now entering the game,” a voice boomed through the loudspeakers, “a 6-foot-4 guard headed for Arizona State … Jaaaammmeees Haaaaarden!”
Now a college sophomore, Harden chuckles at the memory.
“At the end of the night,” he says, “all these people were coming up to me saying, ‘Arizona State? Are you really going to Arizona State? Why would you want to go there?’
– ASU forward Jeff Pendergraph
“Now they know,” he says.
Indeed, less than two years later, Harden and Arizona State are beating the programs they once hoped to mimic. At 20-5 overall and 9-4 in the Pac-10, the Sun Devils are having their best season since 1980-81 and trail first-place Washington by just one game.
Arizona State, which plays host to rival Arizona on Sunday, has not won a league title since joining the conference in 1978-79.
“Everyone aspires to win a championship,” third-year coach Herb Sendek says. “But you can’t just wake up and win a championship. You just have to string enough good days together consecutively and hope for the best.”
Sun Devils’ partisans are doing all they can to help. Just two seasons removed from a 2-16 Pac-10 record, Arizona State’s success is luring fans to Wells-Fargo Arena in droves.
Even with the NBA All-Star Game being played down the road in Phoenix, a near-sellout crowd turned out for the Sun Devils’ victory over USC on Sunday. Three days earlier there was hardly an empty seat when Arizona State defeated No. 11 UCLA.
Many of the fans rushed onto the court as the final horn sounded in the 74-67 victory. Amid the celebration, Harden climbed atop a press table with a basketball in his hands, waving to the crowd as he celebrated Arizona State’s finest hour.
“It feels good to see everyone so excited about Arizona State basketball again,” forward Jeff Pendergraph says. “Some of our fans have been behind us since we were dirt, since we were at the bottom of the pack.
“For so long we were everyone’s whipping boy. Now we’re the ones going around and kicking people’s butt.”
As Herb Sendek makes his way into his weekly press conference, it’s clear he’d rather be preparing for Sunday’s game against Arizona instead of answering questions about his program.
“Quick! Quick!” Sendek says to a reporter who asks for some extra time. “The Wildcats are coming.”
Spend just a few minutes around Sendek and it’s easy to see why he’s known as one of the most focused coaches in the country. He says he hasn’t noticed the escalating buzz about his team on campus because he’s always “on lockdown trying to win the next game.”
Asked about the gratification from turning around a struggling program, Sendek says: “We’re just in our third year now. There’s still a long way to go.”
“Coach tells jokes sometimes, but he’s usually the only one that laughs at them,” guard Derek Glasser says. “He pays so much attention to detail. He’s so focused, so driven.”
Not that Sendek has had much choice.
After 10 years at North Carolina State, Sendek was hired three seasons ago to take over an Arizona State program that had won just 12 NCAA tournament games in its history. The Sun Devils hadn’t had consecutive 20-win seasons in nearly three decades and, under former coach Rob Evans, there wasn’t much of an indication that things were going to change.
Arizona State went 8-22 overall and 2-16 during Sendek’s first year. Still, as the weeks and months wore on, the signs of progress became glaring. Twelve of the Sun Devils’ 16 conference losses were by 10 points or less. At the end of the season they defeated Cal and USC.
Still, when players such as Glasser returned home that summer, friends who compete for other Pac-10 schools couldn’t resist giving Arizona State’s players a ribbing.
“They kept talking about how they were going to keep (whipping) us year after year,” Glasser says. “I told them, ‘Just wait. We’ll have our turn.’
“The thing was, I knew something they didn’t know. I knew how good James was going to be.”
As much credit as Sendek deserves for turning around Arizona State’s program, an equal amount of praise should be heaped on Harden, who couldn’t have come along at a better time for the Sun Devils.
An assistant under Rick Pitino at Kentucky before taking over at N.C. State, Sendek didn’t have many West Coast recruiting ties when he landed the job in Tempe. But what he did have was a relationship with sneaker company executive Sonny Vaccaro, who had hired Harden’s high school and AAU coach, Scott Pera, to work at one of his summer basketball camps.
– ASU guard James Harden
Knowing Harden would likely follow Pera if he received a college job – and knowing that Arizona State needed a marquee player to kick start its program – Vaccaro recommended Pera for a position as the school’s head of basketball operations. Sendek hired Pera in July of 2006 and, a month later, Harden committed to the Sun Devils.
“I just think he (Harden) wanted to leave his mark here the same way O.J. (Mayo) left his at USC,” says Glasser, who also followed Pera to Arizona State after originally committing to USC. “He wanted to be that player who changed things for Arizona State basketball. As of now, it looks like he will.”
Arizona State’s infatuation with Harden is easy to gauge during a stroll through the school’s campus. The Los Angeles native routinely receives autograph and picture requests from students who wear shirts that read: “Die Harden Fan.”
Prior to the season he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Just last weekend, after the Sun Devils defeated USC, Harden was a guest at a post All-Star game party hosted by Phoenix Suns standout Amare Stoudemire.
Most NBA mock drafts indicate that Harden – who averages 21.3 points and 4.2 assists – will be among the top five players selected. That would make him the highest Arizona State selection since Byron Scott was picked No. 4 in 1983.
“It’s just unbelievable how far I’ve come in two years,” says Harden, tugging on his scraggly beard as Lil Wayne plays lightly on his I-Pod. “A lot of it is because of my mom and the people that look after me, and a lot of it is because of my coaches.
“Looking back, I couldn’t have made a better decision than to come here.”
Across campus at Glasser’s apartment, the ping-pong table has been put away. Earlier this season, a gaggle of Sun Devils players could be found in his living room almost every night, competing in tournaments and talking trash.
“Guys were getting good because we were playing three or four nights a week,” Glasser says. “Some people would be like, ‘I can’t wait until practice is over so we can go play ping-pong. After awhile it got to be too much. It was time to call it off for awhile.
“We’ve got more important things to worry about right now.”
With five regular season games remaining, the Sun Devils say they couldn’t be any more focused on what lies ahead. With UCLA struggling and Washington still on the schedule, a Pac-10 title hardly seems far-fetched.
A victory over Arizona on Sunday would give Arizona State five straight victories – and it’s not as if they’re all coming solely because of Harden.
Rihards Kuksiks, a forward from Latvia who attended the Florida Air Academy, is averaging 10.1 points while Glasser is good for 4.8 assists per contest. The Sun Devils are also getting huge contributions from some recognizable names off the bench.
Jamelle McMillan is the son of Portland Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan. Jerren Shipp’s brother, Josh, stars at UCLA. McMillan and Shipp are the only non-starters who average double-digit minutes.
The glue-guy, though, has been Pendergraph – a senior and the lone Sun Devil who spent time under the previous staff. A 6-9 forward, Pendergraph averages a team-high eight rebounds and ranks second in scoring (13.7 points).
“It was tough at first under Coach Sendek,” Pendergraph says. “Everyone was so used to Arizona State (struggling) for so long. But Coach Sendek said, ‘Guys, this is what you can do. This is what is possible.’
“It was nice to have someone believe in us. Now, when we’re out there dominating a game, it’s like, ‘Whoa, Coach. You were right.’”