Arizona State eyes return to NCAA tournament after back-to-back down seasons

Arizona State's Evan Gordon was dribbling out the clock in the final seconds of his team's 78-60 rout of UCLA on Saturday afternoon when Bruins guard Jordan Adams inexplicably poked the ball away and dribbled up-court.

Rather than allow Adams a stat-padding breakaway layup at the buzzer, Arizona State's Carrick Felix sprinted after him, timed his leap perfectly and swatted the ball off the backboard as time expired.

The two points Felix prevented were meaningless, but the statement he made in doing so was not. He reiterated that beating the Sun Devils won't be easy this season because no matter what the game situation is, they compete relentlessly from tipoff until the final buzzer.

"Every coach loves to see that kind of effort," Arizona State coach Herb Sendek said. "That's how Carrick has approached every day since the end of last season. The one word that best depicts what Carrick has provided for us is heart."

Arizona State has emerged as the Pac-12's most surprising success story by following the example of its senior leader.

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Despite a revamped coaching staff, a short bench and the loss of three of last year's four leading scorers to transfers, the Sun Devils are in position to contend for their first NCAA tournament bid since James Harden's final season in Tempe four years ago. They're 16-4 overall and 5-2 in the Pac-12, a mark validated by quality wins against NCAA tournament hopefuls UCLA and Colorado.

The success of the Sun Devils is well-timed for Sendek because fans were growing restless after back-to-back losing seasons.

With highly touted incoming point guard Jahii Carson academically ineligible last season and no true point guard on the roster to take his place, Arizona State lacked pizzazz or star power and staggered to a 10-21 record. As a result, only an average of 5,411 fans showed up to Wells Fargo Arena to watch them play, which contributed to the perception that Sendek couldn't afford another losing record this season if he was going to keep his job.

"We obviously wanted to turn things around," Sendek said. "Last year was a challenging season on several different levels, but I always had confidence in what we do."

The question facing Arizona State entering this season was whether the addition of Carson could help the Sun Devils overcome some roster attrition.

Keala King, Arizona State's talented but temperamental leading scorer, left the program in January following a series of disciplinary issues. Second-leading scorer Trent Lockett transferred to Marquette to be closer to his mother while she battled cancer and second-leading rebounder Kyle Cain also transferred. Complicating things further, Sendek lost a pair of assistant coaches within days of one-another in late-August when Scott Pera left for Penn and Lamont Smith joined Lorenzo Romar's staff at Washington.

Given that backdrop, it wasn't a surprise to see Arizona State projected 11th in the Pac-12 preseason poll, yet in retrospect such dire predictions underestimated Carson's ability to make an instant impact.

Carson,'s No. 33 player in the Class 0f 2011, has managed to help Arizona State increase its tempo and decrease its turnover rate at the same time. Despite having to shake the rust off from such a long absence, Carson has averaged 17.3 points and 5.5 assists per game as a freshman, showcasing an ability to get to the rim no matter who defends him.

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"Having to play without a true point guard last year really put us in a tough spot," Sendek said. "It's an oversimplification to give him all the credit, but certainly point guard is a really important position and having somebody of Jahii's caliber to play point guard does make a difference."

If Carson is one element of Arizona State's improved nucleus this season, Felix and center Jordan Bachynski are the other two.

Felix has thrived playing at a quicker tempo this season because it has enabled him to showcase his athleticism and ability to finish at the rim in transition. Not only is the 6-foot-6 senior averaging an impressive 15.1 points and 8.2 rebounds, he also disrupts opposing offenses with his length and quickness and plays with consistently relentless effort on both ends of the floor.

Bachynski, a 7-foot-2 junior, is Arizona State's defensive anchor. Thanks to Bachynski's conference-leading 4.3 blocks per game, Arizona State's perimeter players are able to gamble for steals because they know he's behind them to protect the rim. Bachynski's offense remains a work in progress, but he overpowered a smaller UCLA frontline for 22 points and 15 rebounds on Saturday.

"Jordan has built on his first two years to make this year his best one," Sendek said. "He has improved on a broad-based front. Every experience he gets in basketball makes a world of difference for him. He probably hasn't had as many basketball opportunities as other players his age, so as he gets more experience, all facets of his game benefit."

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In conference play so far this season, Arizona State is averaging the third-most points per possession in the Pac-12 and limiting opposing teams to 39.7 percent shooting. The Sun Devils are especially effective at not fouling their opponents, which is critical considering four starters play well over 30 minutes per game and there isn't a ton of depth behind them.

Arizona State's tepid non-conference schedule made the Sun Devils a mystery team when they entered Pac-12 play 11-2. But now that they're a half game out of a second place in the league through seven games, it seems clear this team has realistic NCAA tournament hopes.

If Felix's game-ending block against UCLA is an example of why Arizona State has exceeded expectations so far this season, then what happened immediately afterward is also probably a factor. Carson made an incredible trick shot after time expired, grabbing the ball, putting it through his legs and flipping it over his head and off the glass with his back to the basket.

When you're trying to go from 21 losses to the NCAA tournament, it never hurts to have a little good luck on your side.

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