MIAMI – James Harden plays basketball with a certain malaise, like he got a really awful night's sleep and could use a Red Bull or three. His posture is slovenly, his gait geriatric and his urgency nonexistent. In the most important game of a college career that's almost surely over, Harden went soft on Sunday afternoon and dragged his team down with him.
Sixth-seeded Arizona State got thumped 78-67 by No. 3 Syracuse and dumped from the NCAA tournament. Harden, the 6-foot-5, 220-pound guard built like a fire hydrant, spent the game's first 20 minutes on autopilot. He was supposed to be the Sun Devils' point man in the middle of the Orange's 2-3 zone. Instead, Harden languished on the outer edges, dribbling into the paint once, hoisting four contested 3-point shots that missed and never establishing the presence he so often commands in spite of the way he carries himself.
"I shouldn't have waited until the second half," Harden said. "I should have been aggressive in the first half."
NBA teams with a top-5 pick will look at that first half and wonder: Is this really a guy who can change a franchise's fortunes? Ideally, sure. Harden is a dynamic scorer who shot 50 percent from the field this season because he so exquisitely plays angles off the dribble. When Harden gets into the paint, he either gets off a high-percentage shot or draws a foul.
"Coming into this game, I had it in my mind that he's gonna get his 20 points," Syracuse guard Jonny Flynn said. "We just frustrated him. It kind of surprised me we did that good of a job on him."
Though Syracuse noticed on film that Harden had not played in the high post against previous zones, it anticipated him doing so against Syracuse's 2-3. When the ball came inside to Harden at the free-throw line, center Arinze Onuaku stepped up, the forwards along the baseline pinched inside and the guards on top flared out. Twice Harden kicked the ball to the corner for a 3-pointer. Those were baskets the Orange ceded willingly.
Of Arizona State's 26 shots in the first half, 20 came from 3-point range. Syracuse hoped the Sun Devils would take more than half their shots from outside the arc, so 20 was a gift. That Harden didn't attempt a 2-point field goal in the first half – he made 2 of 5 in the second half and finished with 10 points, 10 below his season average – tickled Syracuse.
"It's easy, in hindsight, to say he could have been more aggressive, he could have done this," Arizona State coach Herb Sendek said. "But part of the gift of his game is he really takes what's there."
Congratulations to Sendek for winning Sunday's Bunch of Crap Award. When Harden asserted himself in the second half, Arizona State cut the deficit to four points. He drew fouls and forced Syracuse to adjust its defense. It was working until Andy Rautins hit a 3-pointer and Eric Devendorf, who scored a game-high 21, followed with two more.
Syracuse moves on to a Sweet 16 showdown in Memphis against Oklahoma, a team the zone could give trouble. While the Sooners shoot 49.2 percent from the field, their 3-point percentage is just 35.6, and their best shooter, Willie Warren, hits at a 38 percent clip. Onuaku, at 6-foot-9, 275 pounds, is one of the biggest players to bang with Blake Griffin this season. And the Orange's balanced scoring – Andy Rautins had 17, Rick Jackson 13, Onuaku 12 and Flynn 11 on Sunday – forces defenses to spread their resources.
Arizona State, meanwhile, will watch from home, Harden deciding whether he wants to forgo his final two seasons and be part of perhaps the worst draft class in NBA history. He won't commit to anything now, though he said he'd like to stay.
"Definitely," Harden said. "Why wouldn't I come back?"
He's got something to prove. If there is a next time, maybe he won't need any caffeine.